The meandering blue lines and patches on your state map represent a rich network of creeks, streams, rivers and lakes that enrich Alabama. Protecting these valuable assets is one of the objectives of the Five Star and Urban Waters Restoration Program of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which earmarked four Alabama sites in recent years for award-winning restoration projects.
The city of Montgomery earned a grant for Genetta Park, an urban educational wetland. Red Mountain Park in Birmingham put its grant to work with agile livestock, and Auburn University won a grant to further enhance the Davis Arboretum. Birmingham-Southern College received a grant for its ongoing cleanup efforts at Turkey Creek, a biodiverse habitat for rare species.
The common denominator was a battle against invasive species and pollutants that threaten the state’s riparian resources. These projects not only provided restoration components but showed significant ecological, educational and community benefits.
Jay Jensen, director of NFWF’s Southern Regional Office, says competition is stiff for the grants.
“Subject matter experts and scientists review the proposals, which are then matched with the conservation priorities of NFWF and our funding partners, including Southern Company,” Jensen says. “Since the program requires education/outreach components and partnerships — the ‘Five Stars’ in the name refers to a goal for each project to have at least five public and private partners – implementation bolsters the networks and capacity needed for future generations to sustain Alabama’s natural resources.”
The Five Star program will select its 2018 awards this summer. Information is available at nfwf.org/fivestar.
Genetta Stream Restoration, Fairview Park — Montgomery
The city of Montgomery transformed a polluted stream and concrete culvert with the Genetta Stream Restoration Project. The stream near Interstate 65 flowed through a small park, funneling storm runoff to Catoma Creek and then the Alabama River. With the proximity to urban spaces, it wasn’t long before contaminants polluted the stream.
A project began in 2010, including support from the NFWF’s Five Star and Urban Waters Restoration Grant Program and Southern Co., to create Fairview Park. Chris Conway, public works director for Montgomery, says the park’s location was key to making it a microcosm for environmental education.
“This intersection is such a heavily traveled, busy area, and Fairview Avenue is an important street in the city,” Conway explains. “When we reflected on the highest and best use of the property as a gateway into Montgomery, we wanted the aesthetic to anchor everything we were trying to do along that corridor.”
In addition to walking paths and interpretive signs, the park features a constructed wetland to filter stormwater runoff and help prevent urban pollutants from flowing downstream.
Clare Watson, community economic development coordinator, says the Five Star Grant for the four-acre site paid for educational signs, trees and outreach in the community, while other grants with city money paid for construction and design of the park.
“We constructed a complex design project and created a manmade wetland,” Watson says. “We focused on the Alabama River basin and wanted to teach surrounding schools and neighborhoods that this is a working park that’s filtering water.”
One offshoot of the project was the creation of Blue Planet Defenders, a group of fifth-graders who spread the word about the dangers of pollutants.
“There was a huge stormwater component passing the property, and it made sense to enhance the stormwater conveyance system,” Conway says.
“We took one of those culverts and daylighted it so it ran through the park,” he says. “The first flush coming through captures bulkier things that would pass by. When you lift the basin, you see aluminum and plastic bottles and garbage. If the system was not in place, that would end up in rivers, streams and oceans.”
Enabling visitors to see trapped pollutants strongly reinforces the message about pollutant prevention in a true wetland.
“Most people think of swingsets, seesaws and large greenspaces when they think of parks, but while they are here, they’re learning about what we are doing to make the park function and teaching them not to throw away things that end up in rivers and streams,” Conway says.
Other Genetta partners include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, National Park Service and Geological Survey, Alabama’s departments of Environmental Management and Transportation, the Alabama Clean Water Partnership, Montgomery Public Schools and 2D Studio LLC.
Red Mountain Park — Birmingham
Red Mountain Park used grant funds in restoring two streams and two vernal ponds on the site in Birmingham. The 1,500-acre park is the ultimate urban green space, with 15 miles of trails, ziplines and adventure areas. The tract moved into modern history as an iron mine from 1863 until 1962, then lay neglected for 50 years, says Rachel Ahrnson, director of natural resources.
“We had a lot of problems with invasive plants, and we had serious problems with trash dumping,” she says. “The old railroad beds were used for dumping tires, bed frames, mattresses, toys — we even found half a car.”
The park got creative in eradicating invasive plants by renting a herd of goats. For a year, the animals ranged over 250 acres, nibbling privet and kudzu and wearing down roots with their hooves.
“It was also a great education tool to have goats at the park,” Ahrnson says. “A lot of people came to see them and learned about invasive plants.”
Encouraged by the goats’ work, 1,975 volunteers armed with loppers and hedge trimmers worked to cut back privet from water systems, mow kudzu and mulch roots and vines to prevent re-emergence.
Restoration activities included planting native trees and wildflower seeds and shoring up banks, while the Alabama Department of Environmental Management removed tires and trash. ”All these organizations working together (Jefferson County Stormwater Management and Riverkeepers also helped) help provide good clean water for everyone,” says Ahrnson. “Our city and state are able to have good beer, good coffee, good food — we depend on water for everything. It all starts at the small level with our streams and ponds.”
Davis Arboretum — Auburn
Morgan Beadles, curator of Donald E. Davis Arboretum at Auburn University, has seen a dramatic impact from a Five Star grant approved in 2015. Work began in 2016 to add three restorative features and signs to the headwaters of Town Creek.
As the smallest arboretum in the state, the 13.5-acre space highlights native plants — more than 300 species — and serves as an outdoor classroom for the university and area schools and a setting for weddings and other events.
“The whole area was in bad disarray,” Beadles says. “We had a lot of invasives and a lot of sedimentation in the area. The falls that lead up to the area were completely covered up, because it was very overgrown and unhealthy.”
The cleanup was completed in December 2016 as part of a university project to redesign the Garden of Memory near the President’s House on campus. Water from the garden flows through the arboretum and then to Town Creek before reaching Chewacla State Park and the Tallapoosa River.
“You should always be thinking about your downstream neighbor,” Beadles says. “The best way to improve water quality is to take care of it upstream.”
The Town Creek Watershed Project improved water quality by removing undesirables, such as Chinese privet, and replacing them with native species to stabilize the stream bank and wetland areas. The team developed a functioning floodplain, and natural rock structures were incorporated to slow water as it enters the watershed.
“We’ve noticed a lot cleaner water coming through from the Garden of Memory to the arboretum,” Beadles said. “We’ve also been able to get a handle on a lot of the invasives growing in or around the stream bank. It’s rewarding to see the changes and to see people engage with the arboretum.”
Davis Arboretum partners include Southern Co., Auburn University, Alabama Clean Water Partnership, Alabama Water Watch and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
Turkey Creek Nature Preserve — Pinson
Roald Hazelhoff, director of the Southern Environmental Center at Birmingham-Southern College, emphasizes movement away from the urban core to a spectacular area 15 miles north of Birmingham. Turkey Creek Nature Preserve in Pinson boasts 466 acres that are being restored with the help of volunteer muscle, environmental partners and grants, such as the most recent in a series of several Five Star projects at the site. The most recent project homed in on nine acres with invasive plant issues.
“This area is typical of what you might find around Birmingham, with a lot of invasive plants that have covered the native species,” Hazelhoff says. “In our case, it was important because bat surveys found that more than one bat species roosts on Turkey Creek. The trees in which they’re roosting are increasingly being suffocated by wisteria and privet.”
Hazelhoff says Turkey Creek has some of the state’s cleanest water, owing to its deep natural springs. That pure water may be one reason the vermillion darter thrives in the creek, its only habitat, which it shares with the rare rush darter and watercress darter.
“The vermillion darter was our original focus, but the longer we are at Turkey Creek, the more species we find,” Hazelhoff says. “It’s becoming one of the most biodiverse areas in the state.”
Hazelhoff discovered Turkey Creek shortly after moving to Alabama in the 1980s when he went on a hike and found a stunning waterfall surrounded by discarded tires and roof shingles. Spurred to action, he urged students at Birmingham-Southern to clean up debris. The discovery of the rare darter galvanized the community to do something about the area’s trash problems. Last year, the preserve had 134,000 visitors.
“This has become something akin to a mission because we know just how unbelievably biodiverse this area is and what an incredible outdoor classroom this provides,” Hazelhoff says.
The endangered gray bats identified at Turkey Creek leave their caves and offspring to come to the area, feasting on a buffet of bugs. Another endangered bat, the Northern long-eared bat, and as many as five other species also use the creek as a foraging area.
The Five Star project paid for a professional crew to chip up and control unruly privet on the nine-acre expanse.
“This park is just north of a heavily industrialized part of Birmingham,” Hazelhoff says. “When you get there, you suddenly feel like you are in the Smokies. It’s a truly unbelievable, Zen-like experience. Birmingham still has some of the best water quality in the nation, and that’s on display when you are at Turkey Creek.”
This story originally appeared in Business Alabama magazine.