Mobile, Alabama, in the heart of America’s south coast, has a long history, a rich culture and a reputation as a popular tourist destination. It is the birthplace of American Mardi Gras and home of Wintzell’s oysters. The people of coastal Alabama identify themselves by their proximity to the water, by the culture of seafood, sail boats and salt winds. However, it is an area that only recently realized what a rich, unusual ecosystem it possesses, and so today is an active example of resurgent preservation.The Mobile Bay and its associated Mobile-Tensaw River Delta are 285,000 acres of open water that contain an astounding array of wildlife, due to the rich environment of fresh river water mixed with saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico. According to the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (MBNEP), this estuary contains more food per acre than America’s richest farmland. The area is a haven for fishers, boaters and birders, and is a major port of trade and center for coastal homebuilding. The water system also contributes $3 billion to the state’s annual economy.
In 1995, Mobile Bay was designated one of the U.S.” 28 estuaries of national significance by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Since then, MBNEP has been conducting research and developing a strategy to maintain the fine balance of human use and restoration of habitat. The Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan received final approval from the EPA on Earth Day 2002, and involves government and environmental organizations, local businesses and individual citizens.
David Yeager, director of the MBNEP, is excited about the program’s progress. “People need to feel ownership, so they care about the land and the bay and want to protect it,” he says. From the beginning, citizens have been involved in developing the restoration programs, and in conservation and cleanup projects.
Birds and Battles
Beyond that, Alabama is encouraging citizens to take pride in their environmental riches with enhanced public recreation areas. The Mobile area already boasts plenty of outdoor activities, including Blakely State Park, a Civil War battle site. Jackson’s Oak in nearby Daphne is an ancient tree from the crook of which, as the story goes, General Andrew Jackson addressed his troops before they headed out to battle in the War of 1812. There are also camping and picnicking areas as well as coastal boardwalks that display the wild beauty of the delta.
Another recreation area that has gained more notice in recent years is the bird sanctuary on Dauphin Island, a branch of the Alabama Coastal Birding Tour. The island was recently designated a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy. It is a major stop for hundreds of bird species, some of which migrate up to 18,000 miles, from the tip of South America to the arctic tundra. Every spring, the island is the first landfall for birds that have made the long flight across the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1999 and 2000, severe weather over the Gulf exhausted the birds to such a degree that “fall outs’ occurred. “Birders of more than 40 years had never seen anything like it,” says John Porter, executive director of the Friends of Dauphin Island Audubon Sanctuary. “Birds covered the ground.” Once fed and rested, the birds fly on and don’t return until autumn, when they are heading south.
Another project of interest is a series of canoe routes that recently opened to the public. The Alabama State Lands Division has collaborated with David Hastie to create the Bartram Canoe Trail in honor of naturalist William Bartram, who embarked on a five-year journey to observe wildlife and wilderness from Florida to Mississippi in the 1770s. Today, canoe routes are mapped through Alabama’s state-owned lands in one or multiple day trips, allowing visitors to gain a wilder glimpse of the delta.
Yet another project in its initial phases is the Greenway Trail, which the MBNEP hopes will eventually be a 50-mile walking trail weaving through the south coast’s towns and open spaces. It will be made of permeable pavement and planted with native species.
While Mobile still has considerable restoration and preservation work ahead, it has come a long way. Alabamians are working hard to take care of the natural environment they call home.