Like many Alabama kids, William Strickland’s early life revolved around fishing, hunting and football. He would fish for crappie with his grandfather on the Black Warrior River, south of Tuscaloosa, catching fish in the same holes that his father had fished as a kid some 50 years earlier. On those outings, his grandfather, William Strickland the first, instilled in William the importance of caring for your neighbor, environmentally speaking.
The elder Strickland would tell his grandson that back when he was a kid, you could walk across the Black Warrior. It was that polluted. The Clean Water Act of 1972 improved conditions considerably, but there was still a threat from the paper mill upstream creating high levels of mercury in the fish, and logging along the banks accelerated harmful runoff.
“It was rare back then to find the president of the National Turkey Foundation and Ducks Unlimited talking about heavy metals in the fish, but my grandfather wanted to talk about it,” says Strickland. “He was a conservationist, and truly an environmentalist, although he would have cringed at the term.”
Hunting in the swamps of Sumter County and running trotlines in the rivers, the youngest William Strickland heard an earful about being a good neighbor to those downstream, having no idea he would one day live there himself.
The Long Road to Mobile
Today, Strickland sits beside a laptop at a coffee shop in downtown Mobile. As the new director for Mobile Baykeeper, he is certainly continuing his grandfather’s work to protect and preserve the wild spaces in our state. He also clearly shares his grandfather’s outgoing personality, too.
“He was a big influence on my life,” Strickland remembers of the man who passed away just four years ago. “He was one of those guys who knew everybody. Sunday lunch after church would take hours because he’d have to shake everybody’s hand in the restaurant.”
I can see history repeating itself over a latte as Strickland acknowledges Downtown business people who are popping in and out to get a midmorning refuel. He says he moved to Mobile just last January, but that is hard to believe given the number of hellos and handshakes he gives out. The self-described people person is out to get Baykeeper in front of everyone in town: Those who view themselves as environmentalists and those who don’t, those who hunt and fish and those who don’t. Anyone who cares about having a clean place to recreate or quality seafood to enjoy — they are on his list.
You can tell he also has drive. A former high-school quarterback who played wide receiver under Nick Saban (“I could run a little bit,” he modestly admits) fully understands the importance of process, organization and teamwork. And he is bringing all that to Baykeeper. Building on the firm foundation and legacy already established by his predecessors, Strickland hopes to tightly focus the organization’s work around a single mission. “We’ll know we’re successful when no one has to question if the fish are safe to eat, if the water is safe to swim in, if our oyster reefs and seagrass beds return.” Unlike other nonprofits, who set goals to still be around in 10 or 20 years, Strickland says Baykeeper will have done a good job when they are no longer needed.
For now, the organization is very much needed, as threats to our local waterways persist and multiply. He says the problems are big and deep and long and complex, but he’s prepared to tackle them head on. “We’ve got a lot of problems coming from upstream, but there is a misconception that there’s nothing we can do about what’s coming downstream. And frankly, the majority of our problems are from us, not from upstream. If we could clean up our act here in coastal Alabama, that would move the needle tremendously.”
The Engineer Activist
Although conservation was certainly always in his blood, the road to Baykeeper was a little unusual for Strickland. A talented math student, he was encouraged to pursue engineering.
“I took a class with Dr. Robert Pitt on turbidity in stormwater, and I discovered there were these people working on surface water issues. Until junior year, I had never met anyone who was both an engineer and an activist. I didn’t know that existed.” He says that’s when it clicked — he could be an engineer and do something to save the world. He laughs at his last statement, unsure whether that was his naivete or his quarterback arrogance talking back then. Either way, he had found his direction for life.
His first job out of college, however, left him a little disillusioned with the field. Despite a wonderful boss and a great company, he realized environmental engineering was primarily about compliance. Companies, he argues, want to be in compliance at the lowest cost to them. “And if there’s a way to be in compliance without
action, without solving the degradation problems, that’s what they want to do. But when you’re young and idealistic, and you earn a degree in environmental engineering, you want to do more. I wanted to clean up the water like my grandfather taught me.”
What followed were three and a half amazing years where he and his wife and former high school sweetheart, Lauren, devoted themselves to nonprofit and missionary work, helping kids in Eastern Europe and poor rural communities in Southeast Asia. “One organization asked me to expand their footprint into Asia, and only a young, overconfident
person will take on over half the world’s population if you ask them to,” he laughs. “I learned a ton, and we visited somewhere in the ballpark of 40 nations during that time.”
The couple returned to the States and made a home in Phoenix, Arizona, where Strickland continued work with the same kinds of organizations, but in more of a leadership role. When the pandemic hit, however, Strickland, his wife and growing family wanted to move closer to home. One day a Waterkeepers Alliance email came to his inbox advertising the Mobile Baykeeper job.
“I sent the job listing to my dad and he said, ‘If I had to write a job description for you, I don’t think I could do better.’ Because it brings together that nonprofit leadership and the environmental engineering, letting me get back to my first love of environmental work.”
With their families still in Tuscaloosa, Mobile seemed like an easy distance. After crisscrossing the globe to visit family, the drive from Mobile to Tuscaloosa seemed very doable.
While they may have landed in a smaller city, compared to Phoenix, Strickland says they wanted to live in a walkable community. He made the move without a car, thinking his family-fitted bike would carry him between the Baykeeper office, his Midtown home, and all the fun things happening around town. The first meeting on the Eastern Shore and a trip to the bayou disabused him of that idea. He broke down and bought a car. He still, though, can be found taking his three little ones to preschool every morning on the Yuba bike, and then pedaling down Government Street to the office or to one of the coffee shops full of the many local residents he needs to win over to be successful in his mission to save the world… or at least the Bay.
What’s Next For Baykeeper
In the next few years, he plans to recruit and retain a top-notch team, a feat that is often challenging in the nonprofit world where young idealistic employees burn out quickly after being overworked and underpaid, feeling as if they failed to make a difference. “We’ve got to build some continuity.”
To that end, Strickland is using his people skills to fund-raise right away. To do that effectively, he needs to model the problems facing the Bay, as complex as they might be, in a way that the public can understand. Then they have to prioritize, and there’s the rub. Some activities, regardless of how noble they are, just aren’t going to help Baykeeper reach its goals. Dropping them is a tough pill to swallow, but it’s a practice he learned from Nick Saban himself. Focus on what you can accomplish, and what’s measurable.
“We need to focus,” says Strickland, “on what will make the biggest difference for our waters in the next few years.” He cites the coal ash at Alabama Power’s Plant Berry as the number one issue. “It represents the biggest acute threat to our watershed. Solving that problem is going to have a big impact.”
Strickland explains that the lawsuit over the coal ash is not about the potential for harm, which he says is certainly terrifying, but about the current and ongoing damage. The unlined pits containing toxic heavy metals are polluting the groundwater, which is polluting the river. The proposed plans to cover the pits in place show that it will continue to be in contact with groundwater. As for the idea that the dams could breach and Mobile Bay could be facing a major spill, Strickland says it’s not a matter of if, but when.
“One of the bigger polluters in our state once told a team member, ‘We’re in Montgomery every day, and until you guys are there, you’re never gonna win.’” He shakes his head. “So how do we leverage relationships to where we are able to inform the laws that are passed and how the money and permits are handed out?” Strickland is using new and old contacts to work on this.
With a handful of other hardworking organizations keeping their eye on our wildlife and environment, Strickland says a priority is to avoid duplicating services. “And we certainly don’t want to have a spirit of competition,” he continues. “There are plenty of obstacles without adding obstacles among ourselves.”
Many of his words sound straight off the sidelines. “You’ve gotta say no to the good, and say yes to the great,” he tells me, referencing efforts to clean up Mobile Bay in a way only a former football player would. “Here’s another Saban-ism,” he tells me. “I never invented anything. I just wanted to do it better than anybody else.” Strickland, like Saban, is not anti-innovation, but knows that there are people in other communities who have already solved these same problems. “What has been effective in the Chesapeake? What have they done in Tampa Bay? Let’s bring that here and let’s do it really well for, like, 20 years.” It may be more exciting to look for something new, but he says the chances of success are low. “We’re fine with the proven.”
Right now he sees four main threats to the Bay: sedimentation, low oxygen, high levels of bacteria and heavy metal industrial pollution. Climate change has certainly become a hot-button issue in America, closely associated with party affiliation. But Strickland sees it differently, and hopes area residents will, too. “Those poor oxygen levels are affected by sea level rise. You talk to these guys that live and work on the bayou, and they may not say sea level rise, but they’re saying ‘We’re losing our shorelines. The water’s higher than it was. It’s causing erosion over the oysters I’m raking, or the wetlands down there are being drowned.’ They’ve seen it every day for their whole lives, and so they notice incremental change. These guys know the bay better than I’ll ever know it, and they’re seeing it and saying something.”
Strickland also applauds hunters and fisherman, claiming “hook and bullet conservationists” have been the most effective in our country’s history. “People in the environmental movement often don’t understand that,” he explains, “but sportsmen care more about that animal, that species, than anybody else. They have fallen in love with it. They’ve spent time studying its habits and they appreciate the species more than anyone else.”
He argues that people on the Eastern Shore often have a much better understanding of these things than the people on the Western Shore, and that’s not by accident. “I’m not saying it’s nefarious, but the more eyeballs on something, the better. The Eastern Shore was developed with public waterfront access in mind, and the port of Mobile was not. Lots of cities that have big ports also have great water access. How do we do that, too?”
“When people are eating oysters or shrimp or redfish or crabs out of the bay, I want ‘em to see it and catch it and feel it and see it from beginning to end and thank God for it and thank the crab for what it does, and then give back to it. It’s that reciprocity with the Bay that matters.”William Strickland
Legacy of Life on the Water
These days Strickland is not just worried about a clean place for him to hunt and fish. As a father of three, he is worried about what will be left for his own kids. Thinking back to those days on the Black Warrior with his grandfather, he wonders what narrative he’ll have to tell his twin boys while they fish in their jon boat off the causeway. He hopes his daughter can swim in the Bay and grow up to eat fresh seafood from our waters.
While those hopes and questions remain unanswered, Strickland is enjoying introducing them to life in lower Alabama. “Rootedness is more than just an idea and it deeply matters. You get to know your neighbors and have a sense of place until it becomes a part of your bones.” He bought a shrimp trawl when they moved to town, and his kids love to catch crabs in baskets over the side of the boat. “They do more watching than catching, being preschoolers,” he laughs, “but I can see it all connecting!”
There is hope for a healthy future for Mobile Bay, Strickland reminds us, but there’s also a really depressing vision for the future that he doesn’t want to talk about. “But it exists,” he laments. “And if things continue the way that they’re going … well, if you lose your sea grass, you lose your shrimp. If you lose your shrimp, you lose your other fish populations. We’ve already pretty much lost the tarpon.” Strickland hesitates to elaborate on the kind of Bay that would remain.
“I got to fish with my grandfather. My kids are going to fish with me. I’m concerned about my kids’ kids and my kids’ grandchildren. My hope is that they will have something even better than what my grandfather had, not worse. I hope people can have the imagination for that. Why just protect what’s here? That’s not good enough. Let’s give them something better.”