It was an unusual flashpoint in a congressional race with plenty others. According to the Republican candidates, among the recent threats from the federal government’s intrusion into our healthcare, our home insurance, our fishing limits and our definition of marriage, suddenly Washington was seeking to wrest power from the state of Alabama on another front.
Over the summer, beginning with a resolution approved by the Mobile County Commission, it became evident that a group of citizens, with the help of outgoing Congressman Jo Bonner, had breathed new life into a nearly 25-year-old effort to incorporate the Mobile Tensaw River Delta into the National Park System.
Without much evidence of any public dialogue, the delta was included mid-September in a house resolution referred to as the National Park Service Study Act of 2013, where alongside such idyllic locales as Hawaii’s Kua coast and Mahaulepu beach, New York’s Hudson River Valley and various historic sites in Midway Atoll, it would be studied for inclusion into the Department of Interior’s National Park Service, which has 401 “units” of inventory in 49 of 50 states, with Delaware being the exception.
At last report, that resolution was forwarded to the House Natural Resources Committee, where it appears to be sitting today. Jeffrey Olson, chief spokesman for the National Park Service, said if the proposal gets beyond committee, it will have to be passed into law before being considered for funding. If it receives an allocation, the NPS would then conduct a study and make recommendations back to Congress.
Dan Anderson / Lagniappe
“We might have a couple dozen studies at any one time and we may recommend one out of every 10 or 15 for some sort of treatment, whether it is to become part of the National Park System or becomes a state park,” Olson said. “Sometimes the report says the people currently managing an area are doing just fine. But we are pretty conservative on what we recommend.”
A previous study on the delta completed for the same purposes in 1979 outlined several options for its preservation, from maintaining the status quo to transferring the bulk of its bottomlands to the NPS. At the time, the study found the majority of the area in a “significant” natural state, but also under threat from industrial development, siltation, pollution, timber harvesting and unregulated hunting and fishing.
Congress took no action as a result of the 1979 study, but in the ensuing years, the state has purchased nearly a sixth of the delta’s quarter-million acres for preservation through its Forever Wild program. Several of those purchases were in the area targeted by the federal study, but Bill Finch, a horticulturalist at Mobile Botanical Gardens who is among the group of citizens pushing for the new study, believes there are more critical areas that can be preserved through federal intervention.
“We purchased the wettest areas, places that aren’t very suited for development where you have to have a boat for access,” he said. “I love those areas, but you know how many people get to enjoy that? Not many. We need to preserve the areas on the edges that keep the interior rich. We’ve done nothing to protect those areas since 1979 and every stream that is coming into the delta is going to look just like (Daphne’s silt-laden) D’Olive Creek if we continue to allow development willy-nilly.”
But local opposition to the proposal has been swift and is growing. In September, the Baldwin County Commission adopted a resolution declaring there was “no public or environmental benefit” of having federal ownership in the delta, claiming it “has been and continues to be, protected for future generations by the citizens who reside, hunt, fish or enjoy its environment.”
Shortly thereafter, the cities of Orange Beach and Creola passed opposing resolutions of their own, according to David Peterson, a Baldwin County resident who has helped coordinate almost weekly presentations to local elected officials and civic organizations. This week, Peterson said he was also urging city councils in Saraland, Satsuma and Bay Minette to draft similar resolutions in opposition.
“I’ll be the first to admit we’ve had some environmental issues in the delta, mostly on the Mobile side, but they are trying to paint a picture of it dropping over the cliff, and we’ll never be able save it,” he said. “But they haven’t been there for 50 years to see the improvements we’ve made and what we’ve done to protect it. I don’t think the federal government cares about local interests, and I don’t think it has the money to preserve it properly. It will cost money and it will take time, but it can be done on a local level where local people will still get to enjoy it, just like they have for generations.”
Restrictions on recreation within the delta under a national park model is a primary source of concern among those opposed to the plan, Peterson said. While both hunting and fishing are currently allowed and regulated in the delta by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Peterson warns federal ownership would require additional licensing through the NPS, if those activities were permitted at all.
Further, Peterson believes the NPS could regulate the use of gas motors in the interior of the delta as well as any industrial development on its perimeter.
“If they had done this in ‘79 there would be no ThyssenKrupp steel mill,” he said. “That would come off our tax rolls, would take ad valorem tax away from our schools, hunting and fishing would be more restrictive, you would have to buy state and federal licenses. There would be severe restrictions on where you can and can’t run your boat and put massive restrictions on what we can or can’t do.”
Olson said if it were to be taken under the wing of the NPS, usage of the delta would be defined its enacting legislation.
“There are 28 different kinds of national parks,” Olson said. “We have the 59 big national parks like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite which have highest standards of preservation, but there are also national recreation areas where the focus is on recreation. But our mission is to preserve all these areas for enjoyment and make sure they are in good shape 40-50 years from now. There are also more than 50 national preserves. The word ‘preserve’ indicates that there is hunting. Some places there might be a need for controlling population so there might be something in establishing legislation that sets up how those populations would be controlled.”
Olson also said the NPS carries very little weight in regulating development outside of park boundaries.
“I don’t know of any situation where an industrial buffer is enacted with anyone’s laws,” he said. “Visitors tell us pretty clearly when they are looking out into the woods, that is what they want to see. Not smokestacks or pipelines or factories. We may make comments to county commissions when new development is proposed because we have the responsibility to present those views to people. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota is surrounded by new oil wells. Would we like buffer zones? Yes, but I don’t know of any.”
1979 Study of Alternatives for the Mobile-Tensaw Bottomlands
Coincidentally, a new hour-long documentary on the delta debuted at the Fairhope Film Festival Nov. 8. Entitled “America’s Amazon,” producer Ben Raines said the film was not tied into the national park debate and not focused so much on the delta’s long-term preservation as much as its immediate protection from environmental threats.
“I see Alabama in terms of how we take care of the environment,” Raines said. “We’re one of the most diverse states, with more freshwater fish species, more turtle species, more snail species and more salamander species than any other state. And they all live in or around the delta. But Alabama ranks 48th on what we spend on protecting the environment and that juxtaposition troubles me as we go forward.”
Raines, a former Press-Register environmental reporter who is now the director of the Weeks Bay Foundation, said the film is the culmination of his 13 years of reporting on the delta and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and not an endorsement of any preservation strategy. It will be rebroadcast by Alabama Public Television in January, he said. He was also trying to schedule additional screenings elsewhere.
“I’m happy the community is having this debate, but making this place a national park doesn’t solve any of the problems I’m worried about,” he said. “It doesn’t protect it or make ADEM enforce protections any better. I can’t take a position in that debate, but if there is something that makes people realize what a valuable resource we have in the delta and what we have to lose, then maybe it’s worth looking at.”
Opening the delta to a larger guest list would be another benefit of the NPS, Finch said, where it could potentially become a significant revenue generator of tourism dollars. Of the 5.2 million people who reportedly visited Baldwin County’s beaches in 2012, many likely drove their minivans and their $320 million in lodging revenue right over the delta without giving it a second look.
“This is an incredible, very unique resource that is often ignored and enjoyed by very few people,” Finch said. “Some kind of national park designation brings tremendous international attention on par with major industrial announcements. Hundreds of millions of dollars or more come with redevelopment of national parks annually. I think it could easily have as big as an economic impact as Airbus and probably even more so.”
Olson said the NPS does an annual economic study showing for every dollar invested in the national park system, about 10 are returned to the economy. The report for 2012 is due in January.
“That is a peer-reviewed, scientific study done by economists,” he said. “Generally speaking, having the big brown sign with the arrowhead attracts visitors, but in 2011, visitor spending was $13 billion nationwide. That supported more than 250,000 jobs and had about a $30 billion impact on the nation’s economy.”
Olson also noted that national parks typically depend on local businesses to provide visitor concessions, services and lodging.
But Peterson said if supporters and the NPS were so interested in what would benefit the local population, they should encourage local participation in the legislative process.
“Maybe we could come to terms and find a plan we could agree on,” Peterson said. “I’m totally opposed to a wildlife refuge, but I don’t think I’d be totally opposed to a national forest designation. If you are that concerned and you want to wake the public up, you should have public involvement and give them a chance to come on board. We’ve asked for an explanation and not been given one and for all we know, have been taken out of the equation.”
Olson said since the request was made after Bonner left office, the NPS would wait for direction from the next representative of Alabama’s first congressional district. Republican nominee Bradley Byrne has opposed the idea while Democrat Burton LeFlore has indicated in debates he’d be open to any proposal, but would default to the will of the district.
If Congress does enact legislation, the NPS would have to purchase the land from willing sellers, or reach other agreements with deed holders. The NPS cannot condemn land and there are many instances of private landholdings within national parks, Olson said. Finch said the time was right.
“This is probably the healthiest remaining delta in the continental United States,” he said. “There is an incentive to keep it healthy and right now there are people willing to sell big tracts of land and prices are low.”