By Randy Gaddo
Photo | Kathy Hicks, courtesy of Rivers Delta Resource Center
The Mobile-Tensaw River Delta (MTRD) is engulfed in a conundrum: on the one hand, it is being promoted as a place for locals and tourists to see, explore and know under the umbrella of ecotourism; on the other hand, the same people promoting expanded visitation are also proponents of protecting the delicate balance between Mother Nature and man.
It is a bit of a tightrope walk, and the long-term outcome will impact the lives of Baldwin County residents in ways they may not immediately see or imagine.
When the Alabama Delta Alliance was launched a year ago with a mission to promote and protect the wonders of the delta, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson made the tongue-in-cheek comment that it is a “well-kept secret.”
The 40-plus alliance members have spent the past year divulging that secret to the world via their new website, alabamadelta.com, and within their organizations to their employees and customers. The alliance’s slogan—“See the Delta. Explore the Delta. Know the Delta.”—is more easily said than done, considering the vast network of land and water.
The 260,000-acre delta falls in a roughly 40-mile-long by 10-mile-wide area encompassing primarily Baldwin and Mobile counties to the south, but also touches northern areas in Clarke, Monroe and Washington counties. Defining the exact perimeter of the MTRD is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.
“It’s all relative and hard to get your arms around,” said Wiley Blankenship, president and CEO of the nonprofit Coastal Alabama Partnership (CAP), the group Blankenship says helped spearhead the drive to create the alliance. “I have asked scientists to define it and if you ask five different people, you’ll get five different answers.”
Blankenship said some will say it starts just below the Red Hills area of the state, in Monroe County; however, others may define it as the watershed covering three-quarters of the state because, generally speaking, a drop of water that goes into a stream in northern Alabama in essence ends up in the delta.
The generally-accepted answer is that it starts at the confluence of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers in Monroe County and flows down through the Mobile, Tensaw, Apalachee, Middle, Blakeley and Spanish rivers and into Mobile Bay under the seven-mile Battleship Causeway and the I-10 Bayway’s twin bridges.
The Mobile-Tensaw River Delta is the second largest delta area in the U.S., exceeded only by the Mississippi River’s. However, what it lacks in total acreage it more than makes up for in diversity.
With more than 600 species of fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds, and habitats that range from swamps and marshes to wetlands, tributary creeks, rivers, streams and bayous, it is one of the most biologically diverse environments in the world; so diverse that noted naturalist and Birmingham native E. O. Wilson coined it as “America’s Amazon.”
Blankenship remembered the first time he had any inkling the delta existed, as he was driving from a northern part of the state where he lived at the time. He crossed the long bridge going to Mobile on Interstate 65 starting from exit 31 (State Route 225) and extending past the General W.K. Wilson Jr. Bridge, more commonly known locally as the Dolly Parton Bridge.
“I remember driving across that expanse and it just kept going and going and I was thinking ‘what the hell is this?’” he recalled.
Now, as an advocate for the delta, he said he has come to understand its ecological importance, but he also sees a void that can be filled to the overall benefit of Baldwin County.
“Globally, ecotourism has seen a growth rate of 18 to 20 percent annually for the past five years,” he said. “This provides an opportunity here. Ecotourism is not just a fad; it is the socio-economic impact of millennials and international travelers who want to be involved in something. They want to get in a kayak or canoe or boat and see the birds or alligators or Spanish moss on trees. But to be ecologically relevant, there must be an education component truly centered on the ‘leave no footprint’ mindset.”
Nature is the draw
Ecotourism, a concept that started in the early 1980s, involves bringing people to fragile, pristine and relatively undisturbed natural areas, such as the delta. By definition, it is a niche market, intended to be environmentally conscientious, targeted, low-impact and often small-scale as opposed to more traditional mass tourism. However, according to parameters stated by the International Ecotourism Society, it should also benefit conservation and provide financial benefits and empowerment for local people.
“It is definitely a subset of regional tourism, and here in this region it should and could be bigger than it is,” Michael Dorie, a manager with Wild Native Tours, said. The local small business partnered with Baldwin County two years ago to operate Live Oak Landing Tensaw River Recreation Area, RV Park and Campground.
“We added an 18-hole disc golf course and built a tent camp there so people can primitive camp as well as RV,” Dorie said. “We cleared nature trails and we’re promoting tourism activities such as canoe and kayak trips. Part of our vision with Baldwin County is to turn Live Oaks into a park and activity center for all ages and lifestyles to be able to participate.”
Dorie said he believes the delta has the opportunity to be a bigger slice of the ecotourism pie, but it has to be done responsibly and sustainably. “A large part of our narrative with visitors is not only how beautiful it is, but how to keep it that way,” he said.
The company has other eco-friendly services in the region, such as full-day canoe and kayak tours and a 40-passenger tour boat. Dorie estimated they bring between 15,000 and 20,000 visitors to the delta annually.
“Most of these are tour boat guests,” he said. “We take them out for a 90-minute tour on the boat, which is really just a teaser, where we can give them an overview of the delta to at least familiarize them with how vast and impressive it is.”
Dorie said they see families with children whose parents want to get their kids outdoors to learn about nature, and the canoe and kayak trips are popular and good for that. But surprisingly, they also see many retirees and empty nesters who have the time and tend to be inquisitive.
“Some have lived here for many years and now want to learn more about the area they live in, and some are traveling here from outside the area,” he said.
“Everybody looks at tourism in our area in terms of the beaches or perhaps conventions in Mobile,” Blankenship said. “We have done a good job of promoting the beaches of coastal Alabama and Mobile for the conventions, so we wanted to tap into what is already working and create connectivity. We looked for where there are voids, other opportunities, and we saw that we have this amazing resource in the middle going untapped—the delta, the waterways, the bayous on both sides of the bay—and we asked, why aren’t we promoting this more for paddlers, kayakers and that sort of activity?”
Blankenship said one of CAP’s major initiatives has been to hire a professional planner who specializes in ecotourism to produce an ecotourism plan for the delta and surrounding area. He said CAP members are now preparing a request for quotes (RFQ) from qualified planners for the work.
“There aren’t that many planners who are considered experts in ecotourism, but they are out there,” he said. “One man heard about it and came down on his own dime because he said he wanted to actually see what he’d be getting involved in, and he was amazed by what he saw.”
The plan would be another step toward creating connectivity between ecotourism opportunities in the delta on the Baldwin and Mobile sides of the bay.
Blankenship also mentioned that if a grant the group applied for comes through, it plans to bring in people who write for eco-recreation books or magazines to tour the delta and help promote it.
“Proper promotion would help all businesses who rely on the delta, but may not have a budget for national or international marketing,” he said.
Spreading the message
Telling people about the delta is the lifeblood of the 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center off the causeway in Spanish Fort. In fact, this Saturday, April 27, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., that’s exactly what the center and friends of the delta will be doing during the 11th annual Delta Woods & Waters Expo (deltawoodsandwatersexpo.com). The event is sponsored by the City of Spanish Fort with the explicit intention of promoting the “beauty and diversity of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.” Admission is free.
The event will feature an impressive list of about 40 presenters who share a wide range of expertise from snakes, birds and gators to archery and outdoor ethics. There will be hands-on exhibitions with reptiles, raptors and amphibians scattered throughout buildings and grounds on the 81-acre center.
Organizers expect between 3,000 and 4,000 people to come and learn about all the different recreational opportunities available in the delta. However, the overarching message will be about outdoor ethics.
“I believe everybody should learn that when we go visit these areas we should leave it like we found it, leave no trace, leave no footprints,” said Shonda Borden, echoing the mantra of those who seek to protect the delta. Borden is a state land manager and manager of the 5 Rivers center, which falls under the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
“There’s no reason for us to litter and trash the place,” said Borden, who has been with the center since 2007. “Don’t pick the beautiful lilies alongside the road. We cannot control everything people do, but we can show them the right way to interact with the delta and that’s where education comes in.”
Borden said that they get about 10,000 children into the center annually on school field trips.
“It amazes me that some of these children have never been in the woods before; it scares them,” she said. “If a child grows up never being in the woods, that child won’t care about the forest, they won’t care about the water…to them it’s a wasteland. They have to learn about it, and as they do, they come to respect it. They develop a personal relationship with the delta. People will protect what they love and what they have personal feelings for. They won’t care about it if they never see it or only see it from Interstate 65.”
This education is intended for children as well as adults.
“We try to help them see the delta through our eyes, not only the environmental value but also the economic value because the two go hand-in-hand,” Borden said. “There are millions of dollars brought into this area just with birding. Our area is a birding hotspot. People come from all over the world to see the variety of birds we have. We see bald eagles nearly every day now and osprey and pelicans all the time. There was a time they were nearly extinct.”
Bird Watcher’s Digest confirms Borden’s observation. With more than 180 species that regularly breed in Alabama and more than 400 species recorded in the state, Alabama is among the best birding states in the Lower 48, wrote the publication’s editor. One article explained how Alabama’s abundant hardwood forests and many waterways and lakes make it attractive to millions of birds, and the delta has its fair share.
Joe Mahoney is a Mobile resident with a home in Midtown, but he is also a landowner in Baldwin County with a home on Tensaw Island, a small residential enclave just north of Gravine Island. Over the years, he has gone from passively enjoying the delta’s serenity to becoming active in the effort to protect it.
Mahoney joined the Sierra Club a year after buying his Tensaw Island home. The Sierra Club is an environmental organization founded in 1892. Its motto is to explore, enjoy and protect the planet.
“Twenty years ago when we got the place on the river, I was doing the exploring and enjoying, but I wasn’t doing the protecting part,” Mahoney recalled. “I remember being out on the boat and thinking about how people say water is therapeutic and then coming to realize we have something here to protect…so I joined the Sierra Club a year after I bought here.”
Since then, Mahoney has tried to put the Sierra Club philosophy to practice, making sure that as stewards of the environment he and his neighbors stay true to the best practices of conservation and infrastructure management.
“If you really enjoy the environment, you’ll want to get involved to protect it,” he said.
Mahoney believes many people don’t recognize the threats to the delta, both man-made and natural.
“As a landowner in Baldwin County, the beauty of the delta is that it is pristine and in its natural state,” he said. “I can take the boat out and virtually go for an hour without seeing another boat. Where else can you drive 25 miles from Mobile to a river house and take a boat ride and be surrounded by nature? So anything that detracts from its natural state is not good.”
Mahoney believes there are ways to have economic growth without adversely impacting the delta, but the process must be carefully implemented and overseen.
“It is a slippery slope and you can cross the line easily if you’re not careful,” he said.
He cites fishing tournaments as one example. Rarely a weekend goes by that tournament fishermen and women aren’t launching boats from Live Oaks Landing enroute to their preferred fishing holes. He believes that “fishing tournaments are suitable as long as they’re being done right, with the idea of conservation and best practices for the environment. It helps when they are sanctioned by a responsible governing body such as the Alabama Bass Association, which places high importance on environmental awareness.”
Time will tell if the balancing act in the delta will remain on an even keel or tip one way or the other.
“When trying to balance economic impact and protecting the environment, I think we should always err on the side of the environment,” Mahoney said.
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