After a costly process spanning nearly three years, the Dauphin Island Park and Beach Board has secured the protection of more than 160 acres of public parklands through a conservation easement.

A partnership with the Atlantic Coast and Pelican Coast conservancies, the easement will ensure Cadillac Square, the Dauphin Island Campground and the 155-acre Audubon Sanctuary will remain in their natural states for decades to come.

“Our parklands are now perpetually protected through this conservation easement, and Dauphin Island will have enhanced land, water, and wildlife conservation on the Island for future generations,” said Matthew Capps, executive director of DIPBB. “If you look, there’s been no physical change to the land, but this gives us a double layer of protection and a guideline for how we’re going to do things going forward.”

A conservation easement is a legally binding contract between a landowner and a land conservancy in which the landowner agrees to permanently protect specific uses of the land while still retaining ownership and control. In accepting the easement, both the Atlantic Coast and Pelican Coast conservancies are obligated to ensure the provisions of the easement are upheld.

The DIPBB has owned all three properties since it was established in the 1950s, but wanted to take an extra step to ensure the properties remain “forever wild.”

“It puts some restrictions on we can and can’t do on the properties,” Capps said. “One obvious thing is we don’t want someone to come in and bulldoze the bird sanctuary to put up some condos.”

The restrictions of the easement include limits on the approved uses of the property and on the number, type and location of any dwellings or other buildings.

The easement also prohibits quarrying and excavation of minerals, prohibits dumping of solid and liquid waste, limits the removal of trees without an approved management plan and restricts or eliminates industrial and commercial activities.

Capps said there is a tiered set of standards specific to each property, which allows some development – bathhouses and other facilities – on the camping and beach locations. The most stringent standards will be enforced at the Audubon Sanctuary itself.

Over the years, Dauphin Island has become a significant destination for birders wanting to observe a multitude of species during the spring migration period.

In a recent press release, Walter Ernest, director of operations for the PCC, called the Audubon sanctuary a “globally important birding area.” Seasonally, the area supports more than 250 species of Neotropical migratory birds.

“Cadillac Square is a fantastic park and the oak trees there are very historic in nature,” Capps said. “We also feel like that’s another premiere birding spot.”

Working with local birding organizations and traveling birders from across the country was crucial in the beginning stages of the easement plan, and Capps said their input was helpful throughout the entire development process.

Other organizations involved in the easement include The Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuaries, Inc, The Mobile Bay Audubon Society, The Alabama Ornithological Society and the Weeks Bay Foundation.

“Those groups were proud sponsors of this project,” Capps said. “Together we raised somewhere around $15,000 to finalize the project.”

That was still only a small portion of the funding for the easement, which cost nearly $60,000 in total. The rest of funds came straight from the pockets of the DIPBB.

For the first time, the bird sanctuary is also operating with a strategic management plan – something Capps and other board members realized was important after a wildfire occurred on the Island in 2011.

“That was very eye-opening for us. We didn’t have a management plan at the time that showed us how we could address wildfires,” Capps said. “Now we have a plan to do controlled burns and other things to prevent another situation like that.”

The development of the current management plan was made possible through a federal grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Other grant funds are also helping to construct new signs and boardwalks and make other improvements to the areas affected by the recent easement.

“We’re a nonprofit so we didn’t work directly with town on this, but it does meet some of their goals and objectives to preserve properties on the island,” Capps said “They’re still working on a shoreline restoration project but the easement doesn’t hinder that. When that’s finished we’ll be able to have a brand new beach in front of sanctuary and the campground.”

More information on the project is available at dauphinisland.org/conservation.