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Something to ‘Sea’ in Mobile!

MOBILE_Museum
Photos by Mark Stephenson

Museum highlights Gulf Coast nautical history and heritage

By John Felsher

Heading north on the Mobile Ship Channel, one might spot what looks like a large ship docked at the old cruise terminal – only this “ship” sits on land and contains another “ship” inside of it.

More than a museum, the GulfQuest National Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico opened at 155 South Water St. in Mobile in September 2015. Built to look like a ship docked on the Mobile River, the facility highlights the vibrant sea life, culture, maritime history and industry along the entire Gulf of Mexico.

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“The Board of Trustees determined that the museum would have a much larger draw if it was a regional museum rather than just focus on Mobile,” says Tony Zodrow, GulfQuest executive director. “That prompted the board to expand the mission to encompass the entire Gulf of Mexico, not just the United States part. Our mission is to inspire people of all ages and backgrounds to understand and appreciate the Gulf Coast’s rich maritime heritage through exhibits, programs and activities. There’s nothing like this anywhere in the Gulf Region.”

The city of Mobile put up $28 million of the $43 million needed just to build the unique 120,000-square-foot structure, with the rest coming from federal grants to the city. The architecture itself incorporates a maritime image. Hemmed in by the river and railroad, the designers flared the building outward as it rises, just like a ship, to create more space. Even the fire escapes resemble lifeboats.

With the building complete, the museum staff packed it with $20 million worth of interactive exhibits in 90 themes that run the gamut of topics such as nature, exploration and settlement, shipping and shipbuilding and energy exploration, among others. Visitors can explore exhibits on five decks resembling a life-size container ship and three levels inside containers. Each exhibit, with more planned for the future, might contain several hundred parts, offering such varied “hands on” interactive experiences as navigating a ship with a sextant, exploring the depths or loading cargo containers with a crane.

“We’re more than a museum,” says Diana Brewer, GulfQuest director of marketing and public relations. “We’re really an education center. Our exhibits are multi-sensory with a lot of technology. People often learn by doing. When people hear ‘interactive,’ they automatically think ‘children’s museum.’ We’re kid friendly, but we are not a children’s museum. It’s almost like a ‘land of make believe’ for adults.”

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Each interactive exhibit tries to re-create the real experience as completely as possible without actually doing it. For example, in the “bridge,” or pilothouse, of the building, mariners of all ages can drive a tugboat pushing barges, a speedy U.S. Coast Guard patrol vessel or other ships on the Mobile River in the “Take the Helm” exhibit. Just like in a real channel pilot simulator, the helmsman must navigate through traffic, day or night in all kinds of weather. People familiar with the actual river would spot many landmarks in the simulator screens, such as the building housing GulfQuest.

Although children can “pilot” a vessel at the helm simulator, the museum also offers some interactive exhibits just for the little ones. Children can learn while they play. Anna Nameniuk, a school nurse from Mobile, brought her children, ages 11 and 12, to GulfQuest.

“We loved the first-floor exhibits because it has lots of hands-on experiments for the kids to try,” Nameniuk says. “They really enjoyed it. I had them try some of the things having to do with navigating by the stars. We lay in the yard at home and look at the stars at night. We also loved the movie. It was very informational.”

Even “Treasures,” the museum gift shop, reminds people of the sea. For a class project, senior Auburn University industrial design students divided into teams. Each team designed part of Treasures. The museum staff used the students’ designs, complete with a floor resembling an ocean bottom littered with pirate treasure and seashells. Large wooden “ship ribs” hold merchandise shelves.

“We wanted to design a compelling store that people would want to go in and explore,” Zodrow says. “The students designed the store to look and feel like a sunken Spanish galleon. The contractors built it exactly as the students designed it.”

People can enter the gift shop or dine in the Galley, the riverfront restaurant at museum, without paying the admission fee. With a spectacular view of the Mobile River, GulfQuest also hosts weddings, corporate functions and other special events.

Maureen and Frank Bianchi of Detroit, Mich., enjoyed the view on the deck one day. Frank, a retired research engineer, and Maureen, a retired kindergarten teacher, spend their winters in Orange Beach.

“The museum was awesome,” Frank says. “I came because I’m interested in submarines and they have an excellent display on the Hunley, the Confederate submarine that was the first in history to sink a warship. I didn’t realize that Mobile had such a boat-building industry.”

“I think it’s great,” Maureen adds. “The museum exceeded my expectations. I especially liked the interactive displays.”

Don’t leave without watching the multi-media presentation in the GulfQuest Theater. The video documents the nature, maritime history and culture of the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile Bay from its earliest days to the present. The museum opens seven days a week. People can buy various levels of memberships so they can visit frequently. ¢

Admission is $18 for adults, $16 for ages 13-17, $14 for ages 5-12 and $16 for seniors and active military. Children under 5 are free. Groups qualify for discounted prices. For more information, call 251-436-8901 or see www.gulfquest.org.

Woodlawn

Jon Erwin at work behind the camera.
Jon Erwin at work behind the camera.

Alabama brothers heed call to make films of faith

By Scott Johnson

| View the trailer HERE |

Brothers Jon and Andy Erwin are making their mark in Hollywood, but their roots are firmly planted in Alabama.

“We have an absolute loyalty to the state of Alabama. All of our movies are developed and finished right here,” Jon Erwin said. “I love Alabama, and I’m very grateful for all the support that the state has given us.”

Their new movie “Woodlawn” represents a step forward for the Birmingham natives. It will have a wider release than either of their previous movies, and it also tells a story that is close to their hearts. Erwin said it meant a lot to him to bring it to the big screen.

“It’s the story of my city and the story of hope in my city, and that’s an honor,” he said.

Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille) runs his way into the hearts of the city of Birmingham in “Woodlawn.“ contributed
Tony Nathan (Caleb Castille) runs his way into the hearts of the city of Birmingham in “Woodlawn.“
contributed

In the film, there is talk of closing Woodlawn, a troubled Birmingham high school where forced integration has led to racial tensions and violence in the early 1970s. The school’s football coach eventually allows a counselor named Hank Erwin to give a speech to the players. They are so captivated that all but a few commit themselves to live by faith. The team experiences a transformation so profound that it spreads to the entire school and the community at large.

The film stars Sean Astin as Hank Erwin and Nic Bishop as Woodlawn football coach Tandy Geralds. Former University of Alabama football player Caleb Castille portrays Tony Nathan, Woodlawn’s star running back, and Jon Voight appears as legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who recruited Nathan.

It is based on a true story that unfolded while the Erwin brothers’ father served as the school’s chaplain, Jon Erwin said. The character of Hank Erwin is actually a composite of the man who delivered that first speech and their father, who Jon Erwin said continued to guide the team spiritually.

He first heard the story when he was about 10 years old, and it remained in the back of Erwin’s mind as he started working in film. But he said the moment he knew that the story would absolutely become a feature was when he read the journal of former Woodlawn coach Tandy Geralds.

“His writings were so powerful on what this moment of love and reconciliation did to him and the team, I was sitting there weeping,” Erwin said.

Erwin was just 15 when he started his career behind the camera. He was working as an intern for a cameraman when his big break arrived. Someone who was supposed to help film the Alabama game for ESPN had become sick about three hours before kickoff. Erwin’s mentor called and told him to get to the stadium right away — and not to tell anyone his age. Erwin did just that and was hooked immediately. “I went over there and just fell in love. I can’t describe it,” he said.

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He and his brother went on to film Alabama games both at home and on the road and eventually began shooting other sporting events as well. In 2002, they started a production company and began making music videos for artists such as Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, all of which were shot in Birmingham. Erwin said it was a laid-back environment that the musical acts seemed to enjoy. “Artists began to love coming down to Birmingham and working with us,” he said.

As his career progressed, Erwin said he began to develop his vision for making movies. He wanted to make movies that celebrated things like self-sacrifice, honor, redemption and courage. Film is the most powerful medium in the world, Erwin said, and the perfect way to illustrate those ideals.

They made the leap into feature films with “October Baby,” which was released in 2011. It was a surprise hit despite only being screened in 390 theaters. They followed up with the comedy “Mom’s Night Out” in 2014, which also did well at the box office despite a limited screening. “Woodlawn” is scheduled to be released Oct. 16 to about twice as many screens as their previous movie and more than five times that of their debut.

It is an exciting time for the brothers, but Erwin said remaining in Alabama has helped keep them grounded. “We use Hollywood but we work outside of the system,” is how Erwin describes it.

That arrangement works for Hollywood as well as it strives to tap into an audience of moviegoers yearning for stories of spiritual renewal, he said.

“They want to understand how better to reach Middle America,” Erwin said. “We intentionally live in Alabama because that’s the audience we serve.”

Besides, they enjoy living here.

“I’ve been traveling 70 percent of the time, but there is nowhere I would rather live,” he said.

Gardening that’s for the birds

American Goldfinch. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products
American Goldfinch. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products

By Kristen Hannum

Gardening with an eye to attracting birds, plus the butterflies and bees that come along with them, means gardening with a completely different mindset than we’re used to. So why do it?

The joy of creating a lively home for a wide variety of colorful, lively birds turns out to be reason enough for most gardeners. But there’s more: Gardeners report that an amazing satisfaction comes with doing something to help threatened birds. The Audubon Society and the U.S. Department of the Interior say there’s been a 70 percent decline in populations of common backyard birds since 1967. If everyone made just a corner of their yard more bird friendly, that could help turn those declines around.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: American Goldfinches. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products; Northern Cardinal male. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products;  Eastern Bluebirds. by Laura Hathcock/Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology;  Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products; Carolina Wren. by Laura Frazier/Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Downy Woodpecker. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: American Goldfinches. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products; Northern Cardinal male. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products; Eastern Bluebirds. by Laura Hathcock/Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products; Carolina Wren. by Laura Frazier/Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Downy Woodpecker. Photo courtesy Kay Home Products.

“So many problems seem beyond individual action,” says Dr. Stephen Kress, vice president of bird conservation for the Audubon Society. “But we can make a difference for birds.”

The best place to start, says Dr. Kress, is in your own backyard.

It’s not difficult. Simply think in terms of being a good host, making sure that your little guests have refuge, food and water, and that you don’t accidentally poison them with pesticides or herbicides.

Bird’s eye view

A birdfeeder is a good beginning, a first hop toward seeing your property from a bird’s point of view. The busy little birds at the feeders near a window are undeniably entertaining. Birdfeeders can also help wintering birds make it through the coldest days.

Birdfeeders, however, are perhaps a bit more for us than for the birds. Both Dr. Kress and George Adams, author of Gardening for the Birds, How To Create a Bird-Friendly Backyard, say it’s far better to landscape with a variety of native shrubs, trees, flowers and grasses that provide a year-round supply of food for the birds. “Birdfeeders tend to attract the noisiest and bossiest birds, birds that attack or chase away the beautiful, small songbirds,” says Adams.

Birds’ names can be a guide to what to plant for them. Cedar waxwings love the little berries on red cedars; that is, eastern junipers. Pinyon jays will seek out piñon pines for their delicious little nuts. Yellow-rumped warblers used to be called myrtle warblers because of their taste for wax myrtle berries. Adams’ book has a guide to regional plants and birds, with specific advice for different species. Your state Audubon Society can also help with specifics.

Plan a garden that will produce seeds and berries for the birds year round.

Caterpillar baby food

Native shrubs area also important because they host native insects. We’ve all become accustomed to thinking that insects need to be wiped out, but that’s completely wrong from a bird’s point of view. Caterpillars are the major source of protein for many nestlings, making the native plants that host caterpillars especially important for baby birds. (Not to mention butterflies!)

Those native plants are the ones that birds depend upon for food, refuge, and homemaking. Again, says Adams, the birds’ names sometimes tell you what to plant. The little cactus wren depends on cactus thorns to discourage predators from reaching its nest. Pine warblers usually build their nest in pines, binding pine needles together to make a cup-shaped nest.

When native trees aren’t available, birds are forced to live in exotic trees. That makes them and their nests more vulnerable to predators.

Birds do not thrive amidst endless acres of chemically treated lawns, which are dangerous, unprotected food deserts that provide neither food or shelter.

Location, location, location

Suitable nest boxes can be one of the simplest things you can do to increase the variety of birds on your property, although just putting out a nest box and forgetting about it isn’t helpful. Just like teenagers’ bedrooms, nest boxes need to be thoroughly cleaned out at least once a year.

Don’t choose a birdhouse by its cuteness scale. That darling Victorian may be completely wrong for the birds you’re hoping to attract. Bluebirds, for instance, need doors that are one and a half inches in diameter. That discourages larger birds, namely aggressive starlings, from moving in and taking over.

Another feature to look for in a birdhouse is a hinged roof. Once you’ve tried to clean out a birdhouse that doesn’t have a hinged roof, you’ll find yourself a convert to that type.

Dr. Kress says that just as in the human real estate market, location is key to successful birdhouses. For bluebirds, that means out in open habitat, so that pushy little house sparrows don’t take it over.

Gardeners in rural areas, like so many of Alabama Living’s readers, are especially well equipped to help birds because so many of them also favor rural life.

Nestwatch.org gives great advice on birdhouses, and the Audubon Birdhouse Book: Building, Placing, and Maintaining Great Homes for Great Birds is another excellent resource.

Bird-size puddles

Birdbaths really are for bathing. Cleanliness is key to staying warm, cooling off and flying right if you’re a bird. A birdbath is an easy and often beautiful addition to the garden. Buy a pedestal type and put it near protective shrubbery to keep the birds safer from cats. Birdbaths are especially important in arid areas, but even if you live near a lake a puddle-sized birdbath will attract visitors. “Puddles are more their size,” Dr. Kress says.

Water with a dripping action is especially popular.

Adams urges gardeners to take on the difficult challenge of providing thawed water for birds in the winter. Winter sun may do the trick, but he advises going for guaranteed results by installing a stock tank de-icer or heating element especially designed for birdbaths.

The magic of doing good

Keeping fresh water in birdbaths and putting in native plants may sound like work, but it’s satisfying work.

“I know a lot of people who started out with sterile backyards and transformed them into great bird habitats,” says Dr. Kress. “They talk about how much fun it is.”

One of Adams’ readers reported how easy it was to change their boring backyard into a bird haven. “The result was almost magical,” that gardener wrote in a review on Amazon. “The more things I planted the more birds showed up.”

Jason Isbell

JIsbell_Tuning_1200

A Shoals native son stays close to his rural roots

Critically acclaimed singer/songwriter Jason Isbell now lives in Nashville, but his lyrics and his heart are never far from the Shoals area of northwest Alabama, an area steeped in music history. Isbell grew up in tiny Green Hill, not far from the Tennessee line in Lauderdale County.

He’s a huge fan of and knows personally some of the legendary musicians of the Shoals. It was those longtime session players and songwriters, like Spooner Oldham, Donnie Fritts and Mickey Buckins (see story, Page 14), who helped shape Isbell’s musicianship.

With lyrics that are raw and reflective, Isbell has built a career and reputation as one of the country’s up-and-coming Americana acts; he cleaned up at the 2014 Americana Honors and Awards on the strength of his fourth album, 2013’s “Southeastern.”

Despite his success, he remains close to his rural Shoals roots. A song he recorded with the Drive-By Truckers, his former band, pairs a tender family memory with a story that recalls the hardscrabble way of life that was once predominant in the South.

The lyrics of “TVA,” in part:

My granddaddy told me when he was just seven or so,
His daddy lost work and they didn’t have a row to hoe …
He helped build the dam, gave power to most of the South
So I thank God for the TVA …
When Roosevelt let us all work for an honest day’s pay,
Thank God for the TVA.

“That’s one of those stories where it’s a lot of different sides to that, but that’s the one that came from family experience,” Isbell said in a 2014 telephone interview with Alabama Living’s Michael Cornelison.

Below is an edited transcript of that interview, in which Isbell reflects on his early years in and around Muscle Shoals and on the attention the area has received thanks to the recent documentary of the same name:

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Q: A lot of people don’t know what’s going on in Muscle Shoals, what has gone on and the history.

A: You know, I think the movie helped and the documentary that came out (in 2013), but it’s been a lot of really great music made there over the years. I think part of the nature of what they were doing was that they weren’t the stars, you know, they were more the people behind the scenes. So that made it a little more difficult to get the word out as to who was actually creating those hits.

Q: There’s still a lot of good things coming out of that area now, and even into the future.

A: Yeah, I see that for sure. John Paul White (formerly of the folk-rock duo The Civil Wars) has a lot of good things going. He’s not touring and he’s not doing the Civil Wars thing anymore, but he’s still making a whole lot of music. He’s got a studio with Ben Tanner, and that venue on Mobile Street. Ben, who’s also from Florence, plays with the Alabama Shakes from Athens. …

But you know, it’s the kind of thing where all those years ago it was the kind of studio focus. Most of the people who were working in Muscle Shoals were session players, and producers, and engineers and songwriters and those kinds of things. Nowadays, I think you see more of the independent recording artists. People who are actually going out and making their own records under their own name.

Like myself, I grew up around (FAME Studios session bassist) David Hood and Spooner and folks like that, and Rick Hall (founder of FAME Studios). I started working for FAME when I was like 21. You know, so I grew up around those folks. Honestly, I knew people like David and Spooner before I knew Mickey and Donnie, and before I was really aware of the work they had done. When I was a teenager I would go out and see them play, and since you can’t really have bars in Muscle Shoals, everything was a restaurant. That was great for me at that age because you didn’t have to be 21 to get in.

So I could go in, get dropped off by my parents and stay there for three to four hours to watch those folks play. You know, that was a great thing for me, and I had been playing, then, for a few years. Over time, they would start getting me up there to play with the band and they were always really helpful. They gave me good advice and kind of took me under their wing, even though that’s not something they were supposed to do. You know they don’t have to, they were still trying to get work themselves.

Q: What do you think is so special about Muscle Shoals?

A: Well, it’s just a special group of people. You know, I think Rick Hall was really the catalyst behind all that, because he had so much drive and so much ambition. Because he had been through a lot of difficult things in life. … I think a lot of that led him to be more ambitious than a lot of people were in those days. He was lucky enough to get the right people in the room, and to have people around that area who were interested in what everyone else called “black music” at the time.

You know, they were interested enough to learn how to re-create it really, really well. It still kind of surprises me. I think it was just sort of luck of the draw, as with anything else. It comes down to the people who were there when it all got started.

Q: The story we’re looking to write probably won’t be out until March. … It’s a little ahead of time, but that’s the way we kind of work here.

A: Right, right. That’s me too, usually. I’m a few months ahead of time. I have to be to keep up with everything. I’m guessing that around the time this issue is out, we’ll be going back into the studio to make another album. We made an album right at a year ago. It was a year ago this week, and it’s been real successful compared to anything else I’ve done in the past. So, we’ve been touring really steadily behind that but I think it’s time. I’m going home in August, so I’ll spend the fall and winter trying to write, and I bet by springtime we’ll be back in the studio again.

Editor’s note: Isbell and his wife, musician Amanda Shires, released a two-song recording, “Sea Songs,” in early February, available on iTunes. Isbell will be busy touring from mid-April through May.

A bridge between past and present

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to a large crowd in Selma in March 1965 as they prepare to begin a march to Montgomery.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to a large crowd in Selma in March 1965 as they prepare to begin a march to Montgomery.

Full slate of activities to mark 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”

By Miriam Davis

The year 2015 marks the anniversary of two momentous events in Alabama’s – and the nation’s – history. It marks the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march and the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott, two crucial events of the civil rights movement. While plans for remembering the Montgomery bus boycott are still in the early stages, plans for the Selma march are well under way.

In fact, there were actually three Selma marches. On March 7, 1965, the first, inspired by the death of an African-American civil rights worker, ended in “Bloody Sunday,” when state troopers and sheriffs’ deputies beat and gassed marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Not until the third attempt was the 54-mile journey to Montgomery completed. Leaving Selma on March 21, civil rights activists arrived in Montgomery on March 24 and marched on the state Capitol the following day.

The historic Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River in Selma will again be in the national eye during the upcoming Selma-to-Montgomery march commemoration. Photo by Art Meripol
The historic Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River in Selma will again be in the national eye during the upcoming Selma-to-Montgomery march commemoration. Photo by Art Meripol

Selma began its commemorations with the start of talent auditions in December. Thirty acts will be eventually selected to compete in the Selma Starz Talent Show on Feb. 27. The following night, the winners will open a concert for what organizers hope will be a big name main act. “This is a way to get young people involved and to showcase local talent,” said Ashly Mason, tourism director for Selma and Dallas County.

The main activities, of course, will be in March. Since 1993, Selma has remembered the march every year with the Bridge Crossing Jubilee. This year will be no different. Beginning March 5, more than 40 events, many of them free, will be held over a four-day period. They include a unity breakfast, a hip-hop, gospel and blues festival, civil and human rights workshops, and a film festival featuring short films about human rights or social justice. A children’s sojourn will use songs, dances, and skits to tell the story of the civil rights movement to elementary school-age children. Events will culminate in a re-creation of the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Sunday, March 8.

These events and others – including the release of the major motion picture “Selma,” which was filmed in Montgomery and Selma – will bring a welcome attention to the state.

“An important historical event like this is a unique opportunity to commemorate the leaders and foot soldiers of an important milestone in the nation’s history,” said Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department. “It’s also a great opportunity to measure how far our country has come in that time.”

The commemorations continue throughout the month. From March 21-25, participants can re-enact the entire march from Selma to Montgomery. The National Park Service will sponsor a “Walking Classroom” for 150 selected college students from around the country who will walk the entire route.

When marchers finally arrived in Montgomery on March 24, 1965, the only accessible shelter they found was the City of St. Jude, a Catholic social service organization. St. Jude is planning its own commemoration of the events of 50 years ago. On the night before the march on the Capitol in 1965, such entertainers as Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., and Peter, Paul, and Mary performed a “Stars for Freedom Rally” on the grounds. On March 24, St. Jude will stage a re-enactment of the concert, but instead of Hollywood stars, it will feature young local talent.

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Several events in Montgomery will mark the date of Bloody Sunday. On March 6, the Imani Winds quartet and baritone soloist Sidney Outlaw will perform the world premier of composer Mohammed Fairouz’s “Deep Rivers,” a set of songs specially commissioned for the occasion. On March 7, Patti Labelle will appear in concert at Alabama State University.

St. Jude and the city of Montgomery are partnering to re-enact the last leg of the march, the one made by some 25,000 people on the state Capitol on March 25. A ceremony on the steps of the Capitol will feature an address by Bernice King, youngest child of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That morning the city of Montgomery will sponsor a heroes’ breakfast for some of the original marchers.

Because the Montgomery public schools will be out for spring break March 23-27, educational tours will take eighth through 12th-graders to historical sites in Tuskegee, Selma and Montgomery.

The commemorations are important to the city of Montgomery, said Anita Archie, chief of staff for Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange. “We want to show the world that the city of Montgomery has changed a great deal,” Archie says. “But the city of Montgomery also remembers. We remember, we honor, and we want to continue working for change. There’s still work to be done.”

Events are accurate as of press time, but are subject to change. For a complete list of commemoration events and the latest information, visit dreammarcheson.com and www.selmajubilee.com.

Keeping land Forever Wild

Program preserves vital disappearing habitat for all

By John N. Felsher

Canoeing on the Bartram Canoe Trail. Photo by billy pope
Canoeing on the Bartram Canoe Trail. Photo by billy pope

Each year, more than a million outdoors enthusiasts traverse a state blessed with an incredible variety of habitats from tidal marshes to mountaintop forests. Many of them visit the more than 1.3 million acres of public land in Alabama. Many sportsmen hunt on 37 state wildlife management areas totaling more than 775,000 acres.

The state of Alabama owns some wildlife management areas, but leases significant acreage from timber companies or other large landowners. As part of the lease, these landowners permit the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to manage the properties for public use. However, companies change ownership, leadership or focus periodically. Consequently, the state sometimes loses access to formerly public properties. When the state loses wilderness lands previously open to the public, those lands frequently disappear forever.

Fortunately, the state controls thousands of acres in the Forever Wild program. As the name implies, these properties will never go under a bulldozer or concrete, but will remain natural and forever open to the public for recreation.

“Forever Wild is a state operated land acquisition program with the purpose of securing lands for public recreation as wildlife management areas, state parks, nature preserves or recreational areas,” says Chris Smith, the ADCNR state lands manager in Montgomery. “Some WMAs draw a lot of out-of-state people who come here to hunt. They spend a lot of money. With leased property, we’re constantly under the possibility of losing parcels. Lands in Forever Wild are state-owned properties that we can preserve and keep forever wild.”

Forever Wild began with a constitutional amendment approved by the voters in 1992. In 2012, 73 percent of the voters reaffirmed their desire to keep the program going. Since 1992, the program set aside more than 241,000 acres in 25 counties for an array of public recreational activities. Besides hunters and fishermen, many hikers, boaters, paddlers, horseback riders, cyclists, bird watchers, history buffs and other outdoors enthusiasts visit these lands each year. The system includes more than 220 miles of hiking trails plus numerous canoe trails among other recreational opportunities.

“Not all Forever Wild properties are wildlife management areas, but roughly 88 percent of the Forever Wild Land Trust property is within a WMA somewhere in the state,” Smith says. “About three percent are additions to other historic parks or nature centers. Less than one percent of those properties are additions to existing state parks. The rest are not quite big enough to be in the WMA system, but we manage them as nature preserves and recreational areas.”

The system includes caves, mountainous habitat, coastal prairies, marshes, swamps, rivers – just about every habitat type found in Alabama. Some major proprieties in the system include Barbour, Cahaba River, Coosa and Perdido WMAs. One of the best public deer hunting properties in the state, Barbour WMA covers 28,199 acres near Clayton in the transition zone between the Black Belt Region and the coastal plain of southeastern Alabama. It frequently produces whitetail bucks exceeding 200 pounds.

“In 2006, Field and Stream magazine named Barbour WMA one of the top whitetail destinations in the nation,” notes Bill Gray, the ADCNR wildlife biologist for that part of the state. “It has some hardwood drains, upland pines, swamps, hills and hollows.”

The William R. Ireland/Cahaba River WMA covers 40,504 acres in Bibb and Shelby counties near West Blocton. Coosa WMA spreads across 32,624 acres of Coosa County near Rockford along the Coosa River. The Perdido River WMA includes 17,337 acres on the Alabama side of the Perdido River, which separates Alabama from Florida near Gateswood.

“In July 2014, we closed on a 460-acre parcel adjacent to a county park in Shelby County that has river frontage along the Cahaba River,” Smith says. “We’re thinking about putting in some canoe launches and take-out points. That’s a beautiful river to float. We’re looking to open a canoe trail that will span about 19 miles along the Perdido River in 2015. We’re working to improve some roads that will provide good access to trailheads, plus canoe put-in and take-out points.”

Photo by Billy Pope
Photo by Billy Pope
Preserving irreplaceable properties and habitats

At Blakeley State Park near Spanish Fort, visitors can walk among fortifications used by Union and Confederate soldiers when they fought one of the last major battles of the Civil War in April 1865. Many of these fortifications still look almost exactly like they did when the war ended a few weeks later.

Sometimes called the Grand Canyon of the South, the Walls of Jericho area in Jackson County holds some of the most scenic and ecologically significant property in the state. Five tracts totaling about 16,363 acres sit adjacent to James D. Martin-Skyline WMA near Scottsboro along the Tennessee state line. About 200 years ago, Davy Crocket hunted these hills and valleys. Today, hikers, photographers, birdwatchers and horseback riders can explore numerous trails or follow the gorge along the Paint Rock River.

“We try to preserve unique, irreplaceable properties and habitats, like the Mobile-Tensaw Delta,” Smith explains. “We also do some habitat restoration work on some properties, such as replanting them in native vegetation. Some properties are already beautiful, unique properties, but it’s rare to find a Forever Wild property that doesn’t need some type of enhancement or restoration.”

Mountain biking is a popular activity on Forever Wild trails. Photo by Billy Pope
Mountain biking is a popular activity on Forever Wild trails. Photo by Billy Pope

Practically in the shadow of downtown Mobile, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta spreads across about 250,000 acres of wilderness, second in size only to the Mississippi River for river delta wetlands in North America. Forever Wild preserves more than 50,000 acres in this maze of bayous, creeks, lakes, swamps, marshes and estuaries. In 1974, Congress declared the delta a National Natural Landmark.

From north to south, the delta transitions from bottomland hardwood forests pockmarked by numerous streams and lakes to cypress swamps. The lower delta opens into an enormous network of bays and bayous bordered by fresh and brackish marshes at the northern edge of Mobile Bay. The area provides homes to one of the largest concentrations of black bears in Alabama, plus numerous waterfowl, wading birds, raptors, whitetail deer, otters, alligators and many other creatures.

The Forever Wild program also tries to preserve or restore habitat vital to endangered species. For instance, the program owns two tracts in Monroe County totaling 4,376 acres that provide crucial habitat for endangered Red Hills salamanders plus other rare plants and animals. The Red Hills Tracts consist mainly of upland pines and mixed forests north of Monroeville.

“The Red Hills Tracts were commercial timber properties when Forever Wild bought them,” Smith says. “We’re restoring the habitat to what it was and monitoring the salamanders.”

The Forever Wild Land Trust does not take private land away from owners. In fact, the law specifically dictates that Forever Wild can only buy land from willing sellers, but anyone can nominate a property as a Forever Wild candidate. After a review process, the state can then make an offer to buy the property at fair market value.

Once a property becomes part of the Forever Wild system, state land managers determine what to do with it. They might create a wildlife management area, public park or other recreational facility. Then, property managers plan what enhancements or restorations they want to do such as building hiking or canoeing trails.

“We’re always looking for new acquisitions,” Smith advises. “We’re close to closing on about 3,000 acres along the Sipsey River in Tuscaloosa County. There’s already a 3,000-acre tract along the Sipsey River. It’s very popular for hunting and horseback riding. We should be able to add that new property to Forever Wild in the next four to six months. That’s going to give us about 40 river miles on the Sipsey where we can put in some canoe launches and take-out points. People will be able to float down the river and hunt or fish.”

For more information on the Alabama Forever Wild program and to see an interactive map of the properties, visit alabamaforeverwild.com.

How you can help preserve more valuable habitat

By John N. Felsher

Forever Wild does not receive any tax dollars. Money for the Forever Wild Land Trust fund comes from interest earned by the Alabama Trust Fund, mostly through monthly royalty payments from oil and gas extraction. The program receives 10 percent of that interest annually, up to $15 million.

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People can also help fund Forever Wild programs and preserve more land by buying a Friends of Forever Wild car license plate. Most of that money goes directly toward the purchase of properties for the Forever Wild system. These lands could become part of an existing park, wildlife management area, historical area or a separate nature preserve.

Anyone who buys a Forever Wild car tag directly supports Forever Wild land acquisitions,” explains Chris Smith, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources lands manager. “All of that money goes directly to the land acquisition fund to protect our Alabama natural heritage.”

To learn more about this program, click HERE.