Extreme Gulf Makeover: Alabama Edition

Volunteers across the nation worked to restore oyster reefs with 16,000 bags of oyster shells.

People who didn’t know what was going on at Helen Wood Park on a Saturday morning in January could be forgiven for thinking they’d somehow stumbled into the world’s muddiest tailgate party.

How else to explain the hundreds of laughing, singing, joking people slipping and tromping in the mud here on the edge of Mobile Bay.

Of course, in its way, the event at Helen Wood Park (the kickoff for the 100-1000: Restore Coastal Alabama project) was quite a party. Over the course of two chilly, but sunny days in January 2011, 545 volunteers heaved 16,000 bags of oyster shells (most of them weighing well over 15 pounds) through mud that often swallowed them up to their knees.

Asked why? Why would they give up their weekend to build an oyster reef that ```was just shy of one kilometer in length, they all gave different answers that were still somehow the same.

Some talked about the habitat the new living shoreline would provide – for oysters, for fish and crabs; some pointed to the egrets and the pelicans hovering in the waters nearby and said they wanted to help the birds that hunt among the reefs and the marshes. Some said the oil spill got their attention and some said it was the chance to begin to address years of degradation and loss.

In the end, though the individual details were different, they all said they came – gave their time – for themselves and for the Gulf of Mexico. They came because they wanted to do something that “felt real.” And they wanted to be able to look back at the end of the day – down the long line of the new reef and see their work strong and solid and lasting.

From Alabama to the Gulf

“There is an incredible appetite for meaningful action in the Gulf,” said Brian McPeek, the Conservancy’s Director of the North America Conservation Region, who worked the line with the volunteers. “The 100-1000 partnership between the Alabama Coastal Foundation, Mobile BayKeeper, The Nature Conservancy and the Ocean Foundation is a great example of how one project can build momentum in other places, not just in Alabama, but around the Gulf from Florida to Texas, as well.”

John Hankinson, Jr., echoed those thoughts during his remarks at the event. Appointed by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, he is the executive director of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Taskforce and the restoration and protection of the Gulf’s natural infrastructure – the oyster reefs and the seagrass beds, the marshes, mangroves and coastal forests – is his concern.

He attended the Helen Wood Park event to help mark the launch of the first large-scale in-the-water restoration project in the Gulf since the oil spill. The 100-1000: Restore Coastal Alabama project is focused on building 100 miles of oyster reefs to help protect and expand 1000 acres of marsh. The project is important to the protection and restoration of Mobile Bay, but also serves as a model of the types of broad, regional projects that will be necessary to restore the Gulf as a whole.

California, New Hampshire, Indiana and Alabama

“I’m going to come back here this summer,” said one volunteer who’d ridden five hours in a bus with about 50 of her Honda co-workers from Lincoln, Alabama, “and see what it looks like in six months. I’m going to bring my kids and show them what I helped to do.”

“I’ve been talking, talking, talking about the Gulf for so long,” said a woman from Mobile in mud-coated hip waders, “it feels really good to be able to do something with my hands instead of just talk.”

There were people from the Alabama Wildlife Federation, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Wildlife Federation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and more than 35 staff from the Conservancy, as well as the 100-1000 partners helping to keep everything on track.

At one point on Saturday afternoon, more than 200 people lined up to pass heavy bags of oyster shell hand over hand – like a fireman’s bucket brigade – to lay the middle sections of the reef. The shells rattled like castanets and blended with the sounds of laughter and singing and one man’s strong baritone rose above the others as he sang, “I’ve been working on the railroad.”

There were students and retirees, kids and parents and folks from California and New Hampshire, Indiana and Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas. There were people who’d heard about the project on the radio and driven over from Pascagoula and Pensacola, down from Baton Rouge and up from Bayou La Batre.

Rob Brumbaugh, one of the Conservancy’s marine scientists, who helped direct their work called them “no longer just regular volunteers. They’re volunteer restoration engineers.”

And they were. And they were so much more than that, too. They were – all of them – a metaphor for the Gulf itself. They were and they are proof in action that the Gulf of Mexico is not a lost cause. They are proof that people – not just from Texas to Florida – but from California to New Hampshire as well, know how important the Gulf is and they are willing to make direct, personal efforts to help restore

“It’s one-quarter mile down and 99 and three-quarters to go in Alabama,” said Cindy Brown, the Conservancy’s Gulf of Mexico director. “We know it’s going to be a long road to recovery, but it’s great to finally be taking the first steps.”

The recent work at Helen Wood Park in Mobile Bay is part of the larger 100-1000: Restore Coastal Alabama project. Led by a partnership of the Alabama Coastal Foundation, Mobile Baykeeper, The Nature Conservancy and the Ocean Foundation, 100-1000 is working to build 100 miles of oyster reefs and plant and promote the growth of 1,000 acres of marsh and sea grass.

You can also support the Conservancy's work in the Gulf with a gift to our Fund for Gulf Coast Restoration.



Heroes for the Gulf

Check out what these muddy volunteers say about restoring oyster reefs in Alabama.
Watch Video

UPDATE 11/18/11: Just 10 months later, Conservancy scientists are already seeing the ecological benefits of the first quarter mile of artificial oyster reef. The oyster reefs are protecting the shoreline by breaking the waves, the marsh grass is coming back and birds and fish can be seen using the reef. Check out the video update by watching the video above.


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