Nature Conservancy holds annual meeting

Published 9:15 pm Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Board of Trustees of The Nature Conservancy in Alabama held its annual meeting in Selma Friday afternoon, followed by a reception at historic Sturdivant Museum for Conservancy members and local friends.

Well represented were Birmingham, Huntsville, Montgomery, Decatur and Mobile, and for many present this was a first-time visit to Selma and the Black Belt.

In an informal setting in the courtyard of Sturdivant local Conservancy member Jim Hodo welcomed guests and spoke briefly of the canoe access points and facilities now available and soon to be available at Old Cahawba Park.

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“Starting with no access four years ago we now have nine or 10 public access areas and camp grounds, a recently completed canoe launch point and others in the works along the Cahaba River,” he reported

Nature Conservancy State Director Chris Oberholser, speaking informally, described the importance of the Black Belt prairie, “that, 20 years ago you couldn’t find. Now, with its Indian, Switch, Eastern Gamma and other grasses, people in the North salivate over it. The Black Belt prairies occur in patches ranging from an acre to a square mile that includes the same grasses, wildflowers and animal and insect life found in the north plus species unique to the South.”

Referring to the recent purchase of “3,000 acres at Cahawba along the river,” he said “Within a few years we could have 100,000 acres stretching from Helena to Centreville, and in a few years more we could project a half-million acres reaching from Birmingham to Oklahoma. Then, half the school children will be familiar with the importance of the prairie and people from all over the world will be coming for the history, hunting, fishing, canoeing and camping. This is the future for tourism.”

He mentioned briefly the importance of the land for its biological value. “The prairie lies atop a thin strip of land extending in an arc from Phenix City to Cahawba to Livingston above a deep layer referred to as Selma Chalk which gives the Black Belt its name. Experts think these Southern prairies might have served as a biological preserve for eco-systems found farther north.”

Bill Finch, a former Times-Journal reporter, now director of Conservation and External Affairs for Coastal Programs Office, Mobile, opened his informal address with a question: “Why do we bother to work here?”

Comparing Alabama 1850, “with the richest cities in the country,” to Alabama 1950, “the poorest cities in the country,” he explained the origin of “Selma Chalk, born 50 million years ago when water spread over this entire area and the cockleps (sp) was born, carried an electric charge, fell over the ground and that was Selma Chalk.

“Nothing but grasses could grow in the deep, rich black soil then, but by 1840 cotton, the Kentucky bluegrass of the day, was grown over the area, cotton gins developed, cotton speculation was enormous and Northern people were coming to grow cotton and get rich. In 10 years the top soil was gone.”

Finch added that the demise of prairie farming, due to the land “playing out,” set up politics in Alabama. “People are interested in our enormous history although horse-breeding, wild flowers, many quail are gone because the prairie is gone. Our job now is to rekindle biology of the prairie and restore its diverse plant community. And the primary ingredient to do so is fire, buying large tracts to burn and restore although we may also have to do planting. Fear of fire is also the enemy.”

He ended his talk with a question and answer period, explaining the importance of “the great prairie pockets on the Old Cahawba tract where the newly-discovered Old Cahawba Rosinweed is found and grows nowhere else in the world.”

Finch says The Nature Conservancy in Alabama is determined that “the prairies of Alabama will no longer be a vanishing landscape. We will continue to save these last great places on earth, protecting nature and preserving life.”

On Saturday morning Conservancy members visited Old Cahawba where Director Linda Derry oversaw a canoe launch and float led by Paul Freeman, Conservancy staff and freshwater ecologist. Recently completed by Lee Ingram Construction, another launch is underway on the Cahawba.