Protecting what was nearly lost

Alabama turns tragedy to triumph in newly protected coastal regions

By Allison Marlow
Posted 4/24/20

When 200 million gallons of crude oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico 10 years ago this week, life on the water stopped.

The beaches were closed to visitors as the slick washed ashore and …

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Protecting what was nearly lost

Alabama turns tragedy to triumph in newly protected coastal regions

Posted

When 200 million gallons of crude oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico 10 years ago this week, life on the water stopped.

The beaches were closed to visitors as the slick washed ashore and scientists rushed to save marine life covered in the goo.

The coastal communities of Baldwin County were left with an uncertain future.

Now, a decade onward, environmental stewards say lessons from the catastrophe have been learned and the Gulf Coast has shifted from simply profiting from nature to preserving it.

“I think the oil spill caused us to look at a lot of things. Maybe we took for granted the beauty we have here,” said Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “Since 2010 we have been more cognizant of the beauty and blessings we have and have a real desire to protect that.”

 

Agencies at the local, state and federal government levels, as well as grass-roots organizations, have turned the disaster into opportunity. It took years of negotiation but in the end, millions of dollars was allotted to Alabama.

 

First, criminal claims settled under the Clean Water Act gave $356 million to the state through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, paid over five years through 2018.

In 2016, the RESTORE Act was created with roughly $1.3 billion made from civil claims as part of the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act. That money is divided among projects and research focused on Alabama’s coastline.

In Baldwin County, many of those dollars can already be seen at work, through projects along not just the white sand beaches but also along waterways and ecosystems that lead to the coastal waters.

 

Blankenship said leaders have picked projects that will help with watershed management across the entire coastal region.

“Keeping these ecologically sensitive properties protected and undeveloped, and for the most part, still available for public access, will have a lasting legacy,” he said. “These types of projects are tens of millions of dollars and they would be difficult to do without funding from Deep Water Horizon.”

 

 

Most recently, Governor Kay Ivey announced in early April that the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation awarded $24 million from spill-related funds to four new projects in Alabama. In Baldwin County the funds allowed Alabama Forever Wild Land Trust to permanently protect 2,300 acres of coastal habitat where the Blackwater and Perdido rivers meet.

The newly protected area includes four miles of frontage along both rivers, 1,200 acres of wetland and a 90-acre lake.

Those same funds also will be used to restore highly-eroded riparian areas and stream channels within the Lower Fish River Watershed, a priority coastal watershed draining into Weeks Bay and restoration of an unnamed tributary to Fish River near the community of Marlow. This project will reduce sediment and nutrient pollution into Weeks Bay, improving water quality and enhancing seagrass beds and oyster reef habitat. 

 

Other Alabama Coastal Restoration projects in Baldwin County are:  

 

Gulf State Park Lodge and Associated Public Access Amenities Project – Includes construction of Gulf State Park Lodge, opened in 2018 and a host of public access amenities in Gulf State Park including a tram system, pedestrian paths and bicycle share stations.

 

Fort Morgan Pier Rehabilitation Project – Funds the rehabilitation of the 500-foot-long fishing pier at Fort Morgan State Historic Site. The 40-year-old pier was closed in 2014 after falling into disrepair.

 

Laguna Cove Little Lagoon Natural Resource Protection Project – Funds the purchase of two tracts of property in Gulf Shores to provide public access to Little Lagoon. The project includes funds for parking, kayak launch, fishing pier, a bathhouse and restrooms.

 

Ray Herndon, director of the Central Gulf & Lower Mississippi Region of The Conservation Fund, said the state has been quick to use the funds smartly and effectively.

“Governor Ivey has really stepped on the gas pedal as far as getting high quality investments made to deliver outcomes that will be long term and support both wildlife species as well as the economy of South Alabama for the long term,” he said.

Herndon said projects such as the recently opened Gulf State Park Lodge are an example of how design can be tailored to serve both consumers and the environment.

“They’ve made access to the public as environmentally sensitive as possible, that is a very positive thing,” he said. “It’s an example to those across the Gulf of how to consider development and do it in a way that gives a nod to the resources that folks are coming to visit.”

The importance of those non-beach resources was obvious this spring when coronavirus social distancing pushed residents away from the open span of the beach and into the more secluded hiking trails and spaces of the recently acquired spaces.

 

Blakenship said, “It’s one of the things we’ve seen during coronavirus as the beaches closed, the amount of people that are using trails at Gulf State Park, that are canoeing on the Perdido River and using the trails in the Bon Secour refuge; we really see diversified outdoor recreation opportunities being utilized.”

Blankenship said protecting non-beach areas is essential to growing tourism.

“People want to come to our beaches but they also want those green spaces,” he said. “When you protect some of these sensitive lands we can have growth and tourism and at same time and give people an environment to visit besides just the beaches.”