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Community Effort Rebuilds Sand Dunes at Ft. Morgan

by Denise Rowell, Public Affairs, Alabama Ecological Services Field Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Daphne, AL

Sand Dunes rebuilt at Ft. Morgan
Baldwin County SWCD DAC Rhonda Bryars and NRCS DC Joey Koptis prepare the plants.

At Gulf Shores Plantation, a wooden boardwalk has always been the gateway between condominiums and the sandy white beaches of the Fort Morgan peninsula. As vacationers happily cross the boardwalk to reach the Gulf of Mexico, they are able to view sand dunes, which act as valuable beach mouse, sea turtle, and shore bird habitat. For years, residents have been co-existing with wildlife habitat…enjoying nature’s gifts and working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help stop their extinction.

But in 2004, Hurricane Ivan wiped out that boardwalk, along with sand dunes on the beach. When it was rebuilt, it sat too low on the flattened beach. As the dunes began to rebuild, they didn’t have any vegetation, making them unstable. Soon, winds covered the boardwalk with sand. Many vacationers and snow birds had no access to the beach. “We have a lot of elderly and disabled people who rely on that boardwalk. But when the sand overtook it, access to the beach was cut off,” explained Boardwalk Committee Chairman Robert Bush. “Mothers couldn’t even push strollers over the thick sand.”

Bush, a Kentucky native, was tasked with solving the sandy problem facing the boardwalk. He met up with Fish and Wildlife Biologist Bill Lynn to figure out the proper way to fix the problem without disturbing beach mouse habitat. “We quickly realized we both wanted the same thing,” said Lynn. “He wanted to stabilize the dunes to keep the sand from ruining the boardwalk. I wanted to keep them stable for beach mouse habitat.”   

So with the help of the Baldwin County Soil and Water Conservation District (BCSWCD), North Baldwin Center for Technology, Locust Grove Baptist Church, and Boy Scout Troop 369, Bush kicked off a project  to help keep those dunes intact. Volunteers spent the first week of April getting their hands dirty, digging deeply into the sand, and planting native dune vegetation that will help hold the dunes together. “Dunes provide important habitat for beach mice, sea turtles, and migratory birds,” explained Lynn. “But they also create a natural line of defense against storms and help protect property. Stabilizing these dunes is a win-win situation for both wildlife and people.”

Conservationists with the BCSWCD were able to purchase the dune plants through a grant provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Volunteers arrived with more than 8,000 plants, including Sea Oats, Sea purslane, and panic grass. Rhonda Bryars, BCSWCD District Administrative Coordinator, and Joey Koptis, District Conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service assisted in the effort.  Joey said, “Our mission is to help people help the land. It’s a good opportunity for folks to see that conservation doesn’t just happen in farms or forests. We can also protect our natural resources on the beach.”

Thirteen year-old Austin Reynolds travelled with his Boy Scout Troop to Alabama all the way from Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Wiping the sweat off his brow, Reynolds said he was proud to make the trip to the Gulf Coast. “I am glad to do my part to help,“ said Reynolds. “Its hard work, but it’s also a lot of fun.”

The Boy Scouts weren’t the only ones getting hands-on experience in conservation. A class of 16 from the North Baldwin Center for Technology also got to work. “It’s good to get the kids out of the classroom and into the field,” said Agri-Science Teacher Allan Williams. “It’s nice for them to do a project where they can come back years from now and show their children.”

Long-term results are exactly what Bush has in mind. Once the vegetation is planted, the committee will monitor the dunes and implement a fertilization program in order to boost growth. He knows the project will require maintenance and commitment for years to come. For now, Bush is beaming with pride as he watches the community come together. “I’m so tickled. It’s a good feeling to know that you have involvement and people want to help.”