TreEast Blog 13 Red Hills Preserve and Perry Lakes Park

Finding Florida in Alabama

Red Hills Preserve and Perry Lakes Park, March 18-19, 2011

Photos:  Courtesy of Sarah Dunn

Some Floridians forget about their Panhandle, nearer Montgomery than Miami, but Alabama conservationists do not. Alabamans dedicated to protecting their state’s immense biological wealth know that their own state’s small panhandle, especially the Mobile-Tensaw River delta, is still partly wild and amazingly rich; and they know that connections from southern Alabama into the Florida Panhandle are of great importance to a wide array of rare, sensitive, or wide-ranging species. 

Not until I’d traveled through Conecuh National Forest and visited the Red Hills – and talked with such conservation visionaries as Jimmy & Sierra Stiles, Beth Young, Alex Varner, and Bill Finch -- did I understand the potential for a vast Red Hills/Lower Coastal Plain wildlands complex encompassing numerous existing or proposed parks and refuges, dozens of rivers flowing south into the Gulf of Mexico, remnant stands of old-growth longleaf pine, countless freshwater springs, surreal karst topography, and the greatest assemblage of freshwater fish, mussels, snails, crayfish, turtles, and damselflies in the country. 

Extend the regional wildway north to include some of Alabama’s Black Belt Prairie (all but displaced by agriculture and aquaculture but possible to restore in places) and upper Cahaba River bottomlands, and our country would have a biodiversity stronghold rich enough to rival the rainforest and wild enough to allow return of the panther, red wolf, bison, elk, jaguarundi, jaguar, and (if rumored sightings be true) ivory-billed woodpecker. That is a cause great as any that has prompted advocates to lead the charge!   (If you have old issues of Wild Earth, look up articles by Reed Noss and Steve Gatewood on Wildlands Network Designs for Florida; and by Ray Vaughan and Ned Mudd on wildlands visions for Alabama. Whether or not you do, see websites for Florida Ecological Greenways, Alabama Rivers Alliance, Wild South, Center for Biological Diversity, and WildLaw, as well as Wildlands Network. See in particular Ron Sutherland’s recent article in Wildlands Network newsletter on Southeast Coastal Plain connections.)

Wildlands artists much defter than I will paint this vision, though (Ron Sutherland began to do so with his article on Southeast Coastal Plain in recent issue of Wildlands Connections, and we’ve invited others to continue the conversation through wildlandsnetwork.org); so I should return to my little bit of wildways scouting: Getting to the Red Hills was hot until it was easy. Bicycling west across Conecuh National Forest gave me the impression that the Forest Service here is slowly relearning how to work with the forest, rather than just “get out the cut” (as some past Forest Service officials have been wont to do). Commercial logging does continue on some National Forest areas, unfortunately, but the Forest Service in Alabama now focuses largely on longleaf pine restoration. I cycled past several longleaf stands with the telltale white paint bands on many trunks, indicating past or present occupancy by red-cockaded woodpeckers, our country’s most officially endangered woodpecker (the ivory-billed and imperial woodpeckers being considered extinct).

Through the forest, the riding was scenic and comfortable. Once I left the National Forest, though, tree cover diminished and temperatures soared. This was my hottest riding yet – though the calendar and my family back home up North tell me it’s still winter – and after a few hours of riding in 85 degree heat and no shade, I was relieved to reach Monroeville, to meet colleagues and carpool to the Red Hills Preserve.

Of the land between Brewston, on Burnt Corn Creek (wherein a quick cooling swim at lunch), and Monroeville, I’d say generally passable but nothabitable, for the big wild creatures I’m most worried about. A bear or panther might be able to slip safely through this part of southwest Alabama, as population and road density are not terribly high; but they’d not likely find habitat safe enough to keep them around. Much of the land is pine plantations or regenerating clearcuts. Some small farms along the way actually look more hospitable than most of the industrial timberlands.

North of Monroeville, the scenery got nicer again, and my new friends Beth Young and Alex Varner, of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, explained what we were seeing and where biological connections remain. We were also accompanied by Sarah Dunn, a young conservation photographer in training who is being ably mentored by Beth Young, herself a world-class nature photographer. After nearly running out of gas somewhere west of Ankle Scratch (Alabama cartographers showed unusual creativity!), and then bouncing down a steep rutted red dirt road, we reached a preserve newly acquired by the state Forever Wild Land Trust, with an extraordinary diversity that blends elements from the Southeast Atlantic Coastal Plain with the Southern Appalachians. Alex, almost as skilled at rough-road driving as he is at natural history, called out each new tree and flower just before a pitch of the truck would take it from our view.

We enjoyed there in the Red Hills Preserve a lovely campsite above Beaver Creek (in which I swam away the road dust), surrounded by lofty oaks and beeches and maples and magnolias and pines, that strange mixture made stranger by the nearby palmetto and pawpaw and hydrangeas. Elsewhere, Beth and Alex or other Alabama conservation leaders will talk about how crucial Alabama’s Forever Wild program is to securing the state’s natural heritage.  

For now, suffice to say, as in Florida, through which I just traveled, and New York, where I live, keeping alive and expanding the states’ land acquisition and conservation programs is of utmost importance. Whether the economy is booming or sagging (and in many respects, the booms are bad for wildlife), whether top offices are held by Democrats or Republicans or even tea partiers, investments in land and water conservation are always wise and beneficial – for wildlife and people today and many generations hence.

On to the next park: I’d planned to cycle north from Red Hills Preserve, but Beth and Alex and our young photographer friend Sarah Dunn were going north to Perry Lakes Park anyway, so back into the truck my bike went and 50 miles slipped away easily as Alex described the Black Belt Prairie that used to cover the land we were driving through. At Perry Lakes Park -- a cooperative conservation project on the free-flowing Cahaba River involving the county, Nature Conservancy, federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, and others -- Beth and Alex pointed out various trees, flowers, fish, and reptiles as we walked. I took notes to try to remember the many species new to me. Especially curious was the sight of a large queen snake in a small creek, with a little banded water snake right behind her (no, I cannot tell the gender of snakes, but a male queen this snake did not seem to be!), as if in pursuit.

Fortuitously, friends of Beth with the Birmingham Audubon Society arrived just as Beth and Alex and Sarah had to leave, so my natural history lessons continued. Most exciting, from atop the hundred foot high birders tower, I espied far below (in what I’d call a lagoon, but Alabamans think a lake) an alligator sized fish. An Audubon birder (with little enthusiasm, for the creature lacked feathers) told me I was watching an alligator gar. That just may be the coolest thing I’ve seen in the water since the small-tooth sawfish, back in the Everglades five weeks ago! Also cool – or hot, really, in the mid-day sun – was the biggest river bar I’ve seen in the South, a quarter mile long white sand beach on the west bank of the Cahaba River, protected as Barton Beach Preserve by The Nature Conservancy, and adding critical river-side habitat to this cooperative conservation project.

Strolling later alone past cypress/tupelo swamp, I again (as on Mormon Branch, Ocala NF, where Bruce Morgan saved me from stepping on a Cottonmouth) nearly stepped on a snake. It looked like a small copperhead, but thankfully had no interest in biting me and slithered away quickly.

Camping alone tonight in nearby bottomland hardwood forest gives me a chance to digest some of the already overwhelming amount of information shared with me by friends in the wilds of Alabama. As if to encourage wild ideas, the full moon, shining through trees just beginning to leaf out, is the closest it’s been in 18 years. The armadillo foraging the night grounds, unbothered by my tent, ambles into sight, its shell gleaming in a shaft of moonlight, while elsewhere in the neighborhood a barred owl hoots and tree frogs chirp.

For the Wild,

John 

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