Watch PBS Newshour Report on the Mobile-Tensaw Delta

Push for a New National Park in Alabama Is an Upstream Battle
Originally broadcast on PBS Newshour, April 22, 2016

Southern Alabama’s Mobile-Tensaw River Delta is one of the most biologically diverse spots in North America. Some environmental activists, among them E.O. Wilson, are pushing for a new national park in the area to protect the delta’s biodiversity from development. But support is limited in a state that views federal interference with suspicion. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This was an Earth Day that got more attention than many past, due in part to today’s signing of the global climate accord.

But for all of the celebrations surrounding that, there’s still major concerns about what’s happening to the environment and the impact of development.

That tension is playing out here in Alabama, with one of the country’s preeminent naturalists calling for the creation of a new protected area to cover a critical waterway.

Jeffrey Brown has our report.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Mobile-Tensaw Delta, where five rivers meet in Southern Alabama to drain into the Gulf of Mexico, more than 200,000 acres of bog, marsh, swampland and floodplain, it’s one of the most biologically diverse places in North America, home to scores of species of flowers, birds, fish, turtles, and more.

E.O. WILSON, Biologist: And there are a tremendous variety of plants and animals in it.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s also the childhood playground of Edward O. Wilson, where he searched out snakes and insects, and worked as a 14-year-old counselor at nearby Camp Pushmataha.

E.O. WILSON: It was wartime. And they didn’t have any older, smarter kids to be nature counselor. So, I just simply led the boys through the whole summer on expeditions searching and capturing snakes. We built up a fantastic collection of different species of snakes. And thus was born the naturalist, and thus was born the professor.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the world’s best-known professors, a leading biologist and naturalist, and a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

Now 86, Wilson’s quest is to preserve the diversity of life on the Earth, including here in the delta, where he and others have been lobbying for the creation of a new national park.

BILL FINCH, Naturalist/Author: This is golden club. It’s just one of the beautiful flowers. It’s really a peculiar flower, isn’t it?

JEFFREY BROWN: Working with Wilson on the park effort, and joining us in the Hurricane Bayou recently, was writer and botanist Bill Finch.

BILL FINCH: It’s a beautiful spring day here on the Gulf Coast.

JEFFREY BROWN: Among his many roles, Finch hosts a Sunday morning call-in radio show in Mobile to talk nature, gardening and the delta.

BILL FINCH: We will talk about, what is the future of this delta? What is the future of Mobile Bay? Will it still be here in a few years for us?

JEFFREY BROWN: Working in the delta’s favor, Finch says, is its sheer size and power. The water is simply too wild to do any major building here. Moreover, the state government has already protected tens of thousands of acres through its Forever Wild Land Trust, which uses taxes on oil drilling to purchase conservation lands.

BILL FINCH: We have done great work protecting this floodplain.

JEFFREY BROWN: In where we are now?

BILL FINCH: Where we are now.

The land wasn’t expensive. It wasn’t hard to purchase. But not everything lives in the floodplain. And even the turtles who live here require the dry land. What we have done a terrible job of is preserving the areas where people can develop, the areas that are dryer than this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finch and Wilson took us to an area that has been protected, Splinter Hill Bog.

BILL FINCH: This is a leaf that is meant to look like a flower.

JEFFREY BROWN: Home to carnivorous flowers like these pitcher plants, which use decoy flowers to trap their prey.

BILL FINCH: And the insects crawl in and can’t get back out.

JEFFREY BROWN: The bog also contains a longleaf pine forest, which Finch says is vital habitat for bears and other species.

But this is a relatively small area, and Finch’s real concern is development, which, among other things, replaces soil, plants and natural water ecology with concrete and asphalt, sending mud and debris rushing into the delta, clouding the water and killing plant and animal life.

So what do you want to see? What kind of federal…

BILL FINCH: You know, there’s lots of ways.

We have tried to do it alone as a state. We have tried to get some federal money. But there’s lots of opportunities for getting more federal support for what we’re doing, and for getting federal attention for one of the most diverse areas in North America. And so, you know, the National Park Service provides some opportunities for that.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 2013, the Mobile County Commission endorsed a plan to study the impact of a national park. But even that has drawn opposition.

WOMAN: If we give the federal government the power to protect the delta, they are subject to abusing it.

MERCERIA LUDGOOD, Mobile County Commissioner: Didn’t grow up fishing or in boats. And — but when I became a commissioner, this was part of my district.

JEFFREY BROWN: Merceria Ludgood is a Mobile county commissioner who favors the study, but knows that many of her constituents will be wary of going further.

MERCERIA LUDGOOD: You will have the people on the one side who don’t know anything about the delta, its environmental implications for quality of life here. All they see is, we need a job.


MERCERIA LUDGOOD: And so the conversation then gets fractured, and you have the people who want development, who want the jobs on one side, and the environmentalists on the other side. And what we have got to find is a way to marry that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Opposition in this deeply conservative state also comes from suspicions of any federal intervention, especially one that could limit hunting and fishing, sports popular in the delta.

CHRIS ELLIOTT, Baldwin County Commissioner: The short answer for why not a national park here is, it’s not necessary.

JEFFREY BROWN: Chris Elliott is a commissioner in Baldwin County, across from Mobile and home to many new housing and commercial developments.

CHRIS ELLIOTT: The people of South Alabama have traditionally opposed increased federal government oversight over our areas. And we just don’t think it’s necessary here in South Alabama. We’re doing a fine job protecting this natural resource on our own.

JEFFREY BROWN: He points to efforts like the state’s Forever Wild Land Trust, as well as to local agencies like the Mobile Bay Estuaries Program, which in this large subdivision has been working to mitigate storm water drainage problems caused by poor planning in the 1970s.

ROBERTA SWANN, Mobile Bay National Estuary Program: You can’t just go in and restore a stream. You have to strengthen its ability to handle those larger quantities of storm water runoff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Roberta Swann is director of the estuaries effort.

ROBERTA SWANN: This is not a natural stream restoration. This is an enhanced stream restoration. There are rocks in here that are not native. And the reason why it’s not a true stream restoration is because we have to accommodate the impacts of humans on the environment.

If we…

JEFFREY BROWN: Because that’s inevitable.

ROBERTA SWANN: It’s inevitable. And if we were to turn the delta into a national park, we would lose the ability to mitigate the human impacts on that ecosystem.

JEFFREY BROWN: Agreement on the need to protect a precious natural resource, but vast differences on how to do it.

E.O. WILSON: That was part of the story of how many species you can get packed into a small area.

BILL FINCH: Get packed in there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bill Finch and Edward Wilson want to limit some development, but see a potential compromise with hunters and fishers in a National Wildlife Refuge designation that would still allow those sports to continue.

BILL FINCH: There are a lot of options out there that we can explore that allow us to have it all in many ways, to do the things we’re doing now, to have the kind of careful human use of the delta that we have got now, but still preserve our biodiversity.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for Ed Wilson, finding a way to protect the delta of his youth is part of a much larger goal of setting aside half the Earth for habitat, one which begins with a lesson in humility.

E.O. WILSON: There are about two million species known worldwide of all kinds of organisms. And the total number of species is probably close to 10 million worldwide, meaning we have only discovered, much less studied, about 20 percent of all the species. So, here is a world that is waiting for exploration, and that’s just the beginning.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta.

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