By Gabi Garrett

Photo | Courtesy Weeks Bay Foundation

The Rio Vista tract is a 25-acre property on a section of Fish River
popular for kayaking, swimming and fishing.

The Weeks Bay Foundation has spent the past 28 years preserving the Mobile Bay area’s coastal habitat and educating the community about these important natural resources.

Last month, the foundation launched its first two public green space and recreation area projects, slated to be completed by 2020.

The creation of these preserves will introduce community members to two new, unique locations for recreation, with a combined 2.5 miles of trail. Outreach will include volunteer participation in the restoration activities, such as invasive plant removal, tree planting and trail construction. In addition, the foundation will install educational signage for each preserve, aimed at teaching visitors about watershed health, coastal biodiversity, endangered species and how land use affects water quality.

The foundation is pursuing the project with the help of a $260,000 grant from the EPA Gulf of Mexico Program, a $20,000 grant from the Daniel Foundation and a $7,500 sponsorship from Baldwin County Sewer Service.

Coastal Alabama is growing rapidly, with Baldwin County’s population projected to grow more than 60 percent by 2040. “This growth will have significant impacts on the surrounding wetlands, rivers and bays,” said Yael Girard, executive director of Weeks Bay Foundation. “It is important that residents and community leaders understand the value of our coastal resources in order to make good choices as our area changes.

“The foundation believes in the importance of green space to our health and happiness,” Girard noted. “We also believe people will better protect things they understand, and they will better understand something they experience firsthand. This project will give folks on both sides of Mobile Bay new access to nature.”

In Baldwin County, Weeks Bay will open Rio Vista on a 25-acre tract on Fish River, a section popular for kayaking, swimming and fishing.

“This is a perfect spot for recreation and education,” Girard said. “This property will become a paddle-accessible preserve focusing on watershed health. A ‘watershed’ is more than just the rivers and bays. And it’s not the item that holds your pool toys in the backyard. It is the land surrounding those waterways. What we do on that land directly influences the health and resilience of our communities.”

In Mobile County, the 70-acre Rangeline property is on a main road between Mobile and Dauphin Island and will focus on education about wetlands.

Girard notes wetlands are another term people don’t know a lot about, but it is one of the most beautiful habitats here on the Gulf Coast. This natural area has been a hub of industry and shipping, but with little opportunity for community access to nature. This new project will change that.

“What we want people to know is that the streams and wetland affect our natural waterways. Each person that visits can see little actions they can do to improve our water quality,” Girard noted.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities reports people gain a deeper understanding of issues when they are able to experience a resource firsthand. By getting residents out into these critical habitats, for both restoration and leisure activities, it will improve their connection to these places and their likelihood of becoming good stewards of the land and water.

“In our community, we are rich in water but not necessarily rich in quality water,” she added.

“Rangeline was once slated to be a subdivision [prior to the foundation acquiring the property], but that idea was eventually abandoned,” Girard explained. “Through this restoration plan, we will clear brush, plant trees and construct walking trails. This property will become a valuable public wilderness space for an underserved part of the community.”

The 2013 Alabama Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP) states that 91 percent of Alabamians see outdoor recreation as important or very important. Furthermore, “walking for pleasure” was the number one activity of interest for participants in the SCORP survey.

Girard believes both of these locations will additionally help citizens learn about spaces they love but likely have not had the opportunity to visit. She is excited to see continued growth over the next two to two and a half years.

If you or your company would like to be part of this process through sponsorship or volunteerism, contact yael@weeksbay.org.