In 1819, Alabama was covered with rich forests, prairie, wooded grasslands and canebrake (bamboo). Most of that landscape has been lost.
During the ensuing 200 years, we turned our rivers into lakes, forests into farms and lost and then brought back deer, turkey and the Bald Eagle.
For our third and final installment about Alabama’s changing landscapes, we asked our “landscape detectives” naturalist Bill Finch and Birmingham-Southern professor and ecologist Scot Duncan, author of Southern Wonder, Alabama’s Surprising Biodiversity the following question….
What will Alabama’s landscapes look like in 100 years?
A Changing Climate
Both Duncan and Finch recognize one of the biggest challenges over the next century will be a changing climate.
“This will be a century of great change for the Alabama landscape,” said Duncan.
“Temperatures and sea level are rising, and storms are growing stronger. We’ll have years of harsher droughts, and years of more dangerous flooding. Freshwater will become more scarce. These and other trends of the twenty-first century will force us to change how we live on the land, and how we live with one another.
Sea level rise is one of the biggest concerns. According to the fourth National Climate Assessment, sea level rose 7-8 inches this past century, mostly in the final decades. Depending on how quickly we reduce carbon emissions, we will see an additional 2-8 feet of sea level rise this century.
To combat this, now more than ever, we need to restore and preserve our salt marshes, wetlands, oyster reefs and barrier island ecosystems to absorb much of the damage expected over the next 100 years from sea level rise.
Finch believes Alabama’s biological richness will become more important to the rest of the country because of climate change.
“If Alabama can recognize the wealth it holds in its hands with all of these heat-tolerant forests, meadows, savannas and aquatic systems, we could be in a unique position to help the rest of the country survive climate change.”
Urban Sprawl – Gobbling up the Landscape
Another major change to our landscape will be increased urban sprawl. In 2014, PLOS ONE, a research journal, published The Southern Megalopolis: Using the Past to Predict the Future of Urban Sprawl in the Southeast U.S. In the study, they predict urban growth by area in the South to double by 2060.
“I’m all for more people coming to Alabama,” said Duncan. “It is a beautiful place and we’ve got plenty of resources to share. But, if our urban areas grow outward and not upward we’re gonna have tremendous environmental problems as sprawl gobbles up farmland, pastures and forests. Once that land is converted, it is taken from nature forever. Suburbs never revert back to corn or forest.”
The recent rejuvenation of our city centers – downtowns like Birmingham, may help stem urban sprawl. If it doesn’t, the zone from Atlanta to Birmingham might be a virtual megalopolis by 2119.
One organization leading on this issue is the Urban Land Institute (ULI). In 2014, ULI Alabama, a chapter of ULI based in Birmingham, was established to provide leadership and initiatives in responsible use of land. They are working closely with local businesses, developers, public officials and residents to ensure we plan and create sustainable and striving Alabama communities.
Despite sprawl and the changing climate there is tremendous hope for Alabama thanks to several groundbreaking multi-generational initiatives that will profoundly alter for the better Alabama’s natural landscape.
Restoration of the Great Longleaf Pine Forest
One of the most exciting projects proposed for the next 100 years is the restoration of longleaf pine forests. Stretching from Virginia to Louisiana, with southern Alabama and parts of North/Central Alabama in the center, there is an opportunity to create a corridor that could save the greatest concentration of species in the entire United States.
“If we could get that longleaf corridor back with all of the grasslands and the forests and the wetlands it intersects, and the islands of broadleaf forests, oaks, hickories (trees), that occur in that forest, it would be an unbelievable conservation effort in terms of its impact,” according to Finch.
Saving a longleaf forest benefits more than just the longleaf pine tree.
The longleaf ecosystem includes, wildflowers, trees, shrubs, salamanders, fish – you name it. In fact, the longleaf restoration area in southern Alabama, which is below Montgomery in places like the Red Hills, is considered a great center of amphibian, reptile, and bird diversity. It’s also the center of oak and tree diversity nationally.
Conservation Plan for Cahaba-Alabama- Mobile -Tensaw River Watershed
Another landscape that can be transformed over the next century is the Cahaba-Alabama-Mobile-Tensaw Rivers Watersheds.
“This area you get a “big bang” for your species buck,” stated Finch. It’s probably the most biologically and most historically important river corridors in North America and no one pays much attention to it.”
Home to 131 species of fish, Birmingham metro’s Cahaba River is considered the most diverse river of its size in North America. Finch has proposed a region-wide conservation effort that will protect and preserve the rivers and forests from Birmingham to the Mobile Delta.
“Also a center for tree and oak diversity, – if we can develop a conservation plan to hold onto those species, it will make a huge impact on Cahaba/Alabama/Mobile River.”
The Next Smoky Mountains – Paint Rock
The third landscape are the Cumberlands. Beginning in Birmingham, traveling up through Huntsville north through Tennessee and into Kentucky and West Virginia. The Cumberlands have been called a working forest.
“It is where we got our coal. It wasn’t the tourist forests, it was the ugly forests. Well, as it turns out it may be the most beautiful forest and grasslands left in North America. Unbelievable diversity,” declared Finch.
The Cumberland forests stretch 10-20 million acres from Kentucky to Alabama. The Paint Rock watershed which is located in Northeast Alabama and Southeast Tennessee, is likely more biodiverse than the Great Smoky Mountains.
Virtually, undiscovered as a biological gem, the Paint Rock has drawn attention from scientists all over the world. Recently, plans have been drawn up to create a research center to understand why the Paint Rock is so diverse and how the forest can survive climate change. Those efforts are supported by Alabama native and one of the most distinguished living ecologists, E.O. Wilson. Joining the efforts are the Nature Conservancy, Smithsonian, Alabama A&M, University of Georgia, UCLA and the University of Alabama.
Connecting and Mending Our Rivers
And finally, what will our rivers look like in 100 years? There are approximately 2200 dams dotting our landscape, including many small ones that do not have a purpose.
“One of the things that will be done is restoring the connectivity in our streams,” added Duncan “It’s good for several reasons. It helps re-connect the headwaters of our watersheds to the main rivers which means wildlife and fishes can freely migrate up and down the streams. That’s one of the things that is holding back recovery of mussel and fish populations. Fish can’t reach their spawning grounds. The mussels are not getting their piggyback rides on the fish that they would normally get as larvae.”
We will see dams taken out that are not functioning anymore. We will see access added for water and wildlife flow to dams that remain. That will help re-connect our watersheds and mend the rivers.
Alabama – Great Centers of Biodiversity in the World
Our two natural landscape detectives, Finch and Duncan best summarized Alabama’s future landscapes with some encouraging and inspirational words.
Finch began by describing how Alabama has a lot to offer to the world.
“If we implement these plans, I think Alabama will be recognized as one of the world’s great centers of biodiversity. We will be an example of forward thinking about biodiversity and how important it is for human survival. People are going to be coming to Alabama to study how we did it. How we achieved this beautiful landscape.
We are going to see the prairies back, we are going to see these great savannas, we are to see these great forests of the Red Hills, the center of oak diversity. People are going to be coming here saying, Oh my gosh, this is the future of North America right here in Alabama.”
That’s what I see.
We’ve always had our biodiversity. It was always the best thing we had to offer. And we’ve never really offered it to the world. In a century I think if we are smart, it will be the rich place we have always wanted Alabama to be.”
“If we continue business-as-usual, it’s going to be a rough ride as we awkwardly fumble our adjustment to the new climate. But if we are thoughtful and proactive, we can adjust to the changes this century is bringing with grace and agility. Either way, transformational change is inevitable. It’s up to us to choose between a future of prosperity and progress, or a future of struggle and chaos.”
How can you help decide the future of Alabama’s landscapes?
There are numerous groups working on Alabama’s future landscapes in Alabama and the Southeast that you can join or volunteer.
Here is a list:
Nature Conservancy in Alabama
Urban Land Institute – ULI Alabama
Freshwater Land Trust
Southeast Grasslands Initiative