City of Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft and Weeks Bay Foundation Executive Director Connie Whitaker signed closing documents on Thursday that put 836 acres into a Conservation Easement (CE) to permanently protect the property from future development, restore fish and wildlife habitat, and protect vital wetlands and surrounding waterways.
Funding for the project, known as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) Bon Secour/Oyster Bay Wetlands Project, was provided by NFWF’s Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund. The Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund supports projects that remedy harm done to natural resources (habitats and species) by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
In 2017, the City of Gulf Shores purchased 370 acres, referred to as the Oyster Bay Nature Preserve, and 465.29 acres, named the Emmet O. and Vina Wenzel Wetland Preserve, using the NFWF funds. The Oyster Bay Preserve is located south of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and east of Oyster Bay. The Wenzel parcel is located north of the Intracoastal and County Road 4. In addition to protecting the property from future development, the conservation easement will restore, manage, and protect habitat for wildlife; maintain the natural ecological integrity of the land; protect wetlands that provide flood mitigation and support water quality; and, prevent saltwater intrusion.
“The City of Gulf Shores is committed to protecting critical habitat,” Dan Bond, environmental/grants coordinator for the City of Gulf Shores said. “This wetland conservation project is a great way to protect the environment for years to come. We are pleased to work with the Weeks Bay Foundation and NFWF to get this project done.”
“This is an exciting day in Baldwin County and in Alabama,” Whitaker said. “As Baldwin County continues to develop, the pressure to convert remaining natural areas will continue. We highly commend Mayor Craft and the City of Gulf Shores for protecting these important parcels. The ecological benefits, as well as the health and wellbeing of those impacted by a clean water supply and protection from excessive flooding and stormwater, are immeasurable.”
Gena Todia, president of Wetland Resources Environmental Consulting, said that protection of this land from activities such as clear cutting of timber and development for residential and commercial use was important in the process of maintaining natural areas that provide habitat for wildlife and certain ecologic benefits that are important to humans.
“As has been recognized in the Bon Secour River, Oyster Bay, and Skunk Bayou Watershed Management Plan, and by the City of Gulf Shores, it is becoming increasingly important to protect certain remaining natural areas, which benefits all citizens of Baldwin County and the State of Alabama,” Todia said.
The Oyster Bay Nature Preserve is primarily wetlands, which perform many valuable functions.
“When water is slowed down and held in place, it can infiltrate the soil and recharge groundwater, a resource that every Baldwin County citizen relies on, from drinking water to agricultural irrigation,” said Todia, whose firm was responsible for conducting the baseline documentation report on both preserves. “Wetlands filter out sediment, chemicals, and other pollutants before they reach aquatic areas, resulting in cleaner water in which to fish and swim. Wetlands and associated streams also provide important habitat for fish and wildlife, some of which depend on these systems for their life cycle processes.”
The report also found numerous invasive plant species, including Chinese privet, Japanese climbing firm, Cogongrass, and Chinese Tallowtree, commonly known as popcorn trees, plus an extensive list of native species.
Volkert, Inc. developed the habitat management plan, which includes controlling the invasive plants on the properties. The plans also include prescribed burning, which play an important role in the restoration of native plants and improving wildlife habitat, Whitaker said.
Some of the wildlife that could potentially use the property include white-tailed deer, coyotes, bobcats, rabbits, southern flying squirrels, neotropical migratory birds, resident songbirds, game birds and wading birds. Bald eagles, osprey, hawks and owls will likely inhabit the property, as well as several species of turtles.
“With proper reintroduction of fire and control of invasive exotic species, habitat quality can be greatly improved over time,” Todia said.