The Weeks Bay Foundation’s largest annual fundraiser returns to the Tonsmeire Weeks Bay Resource Center under Fish River Bridge Saturday, May 4. Now in its 10th year, organizers are touting the Bald Eagle Bash as “the best outdoor party on the Gulf Coast.”
The Weeks Bay Foundation is an accredited conservation land trust that has preserved more than 7,000 acres of wetlands and environmentally sensitive property in Baldwin and Mobile counties since its founding in 1990.
Magnolia Springs Mayor Bob Holk, who has been a foundation board member for more than a decade, explained that its primary mission is to preserve land, but it also provides “financial and moral support” to the Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, a 6,000-acre field laboratory and research facility promoting environmental education and awareness through volunteer activities.
“It’s a great thing,” Holk said. “I’ve been on the board for a long time, and as mayor of Magnolia Springs, our primary objective is to protect [Magnolia River]. So, working with the foundation I get to be a part of a similar-but-broader mission.”
The foundation owns some properties itself, but will engage with any landowner interested in obtaining a conservation easement to “increase the buffer around development and agriculture to help improve water quality and the health of the estuaries,” Holk said.
“We’ve primarily focused on property around Fish River, Magnolia River, Weeks Bay and Mobile Bay, but we also have some property on Dauphin Island and Perdido Bay, and we are currently working with the City of Gulf Shores on a pretty large tract of land on Oyster Bay,” he said. “We have a land acquisition committee and we’re always looking for properties. Sometimes it takes years to do, but we try to keep things progressing and are always working on new acquisitions.”
Executive Director Yael Girard elaborated, saying the reserve is funded by state and federal money, while the nonprofit foundation can apply for grants. The foundation can be a little more flexible with its expenditures, but the reserve must get approval from Montgomery, she said.
“For example, right now we’re partnering on a marine debris removal grant to pull five derelict boats out of Weeks Bay. We’re not sure about the origin of the boats, but they have been there for years and pose both navigational and environmental hazards just sitting there. We pulled three out today and will get the other two tomorrow,” she said last week.
“They have chemicals in them and are made out of a ton of plastic, so as they break down, they become microplastics that can be ingested by fish and shellfish,” she said. “We’re basically seeing this in waters all over the planet right now.”
Girard said two other recent acquisition projects include 23 acres on upper Fish River called Rio Vista and about 70 acres in Theodore known as Rangeline. Both will be available for public access once walking trails are completed and improvements are made.
“The one on Fish River was harvested for timber, so we are doing planting, while the one on Rangeline was totally overgrown and neglected. There, we are doing forestry and controlled burning. In that process we discovered the property has a huge population of pitcher plants,” she said. “Eventually they both will have trails and Rangeline will have a gravel parking lot.”
The Fish River property is only accessible by kayak or canoe.
Tickets for the Bald Eagle Bash are $45 and include all food and drinks, plus live music by The Red Clay Strays. This year, the foundation is welcoming at least 16 area restaurants to prepare one or two dishes using Alabama Gulf shrimp. Fairhope Brewing will be serving a special brew for the event: Bald Eagle Blue, a blueberry wheat beer. Wine and nonalcoholic drinks are also available and will be poured into reusable, stainless steel tumblers provided by sponsor Sportsman’s Marine. Attendees can take the tumblers home.
“As an environmental organization that does a lot of habitat protection, we want to put our money where our mouth is,” Girard said. “We’re aiming to reduce the amount of waste the festival produces and all the food and drink containers will be recyclable. The Red Clay Strays are going to play at Hangout Fest next month, so having them here is going to be a great preview. Plus, we’re bringing on a few new restaurants such as Cereal Killer and Wok by the Bay out of Fairhope. We can’t wait to see what they serve.”
Jeremiah Matthews of Southwood Kitchen in Daphne said he has participated in the Bald Eagle Bash for several years, previously while working for Jesse’s in Magnolia Springs.
“Last year we did tacos two differnt ways,” he said. “I’m thinking maybe pickled shrimp this year, but I’m not sure. It’s a lot of fun for us. There are a lot of local restaurants supporting a good cause. It’s one of my favorite events at a beautiful spot.”
In his experience, Matthews said it also gives participants the opportunity to sample restaurants they may not have visited before, and it often drives new business long after the event is over.
“It’s grown exponentially since the beginning. I always look forward to it,” he said.
Funds raised during the event will help with expenses in the land acquisition process, including surveys, site assessments and title work, while also helping to purchase equipment and material used by volunteers at the reserve.
The Weeks Bay Foundation also hosts the Pelican Paddle fundraiser in August and the Alabama Coastal BirdFest in October. More information and tickets are available at baldeaglebash.com or by calling 251-990-5004.
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