Get an inside look at Alabama’s 10 Natural Wonders 23 years later

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Gasp. This view from Cheaha State Park by Trey McMeans does it. Courtesy of Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

In 1997, joined by a diverse coalition, the Alabama Environmental Council (AEC) designated 10 Alabama Natural Wonders. 

In this story, we ask the question: what happened to these special places after they were honored more than two decades ago? The answer may surprise you. 

Second Story in a Series

Natural Wonders brochure map

Last week, in our first installment, we learned how and why the Alabama Natural Wonders Campaign was established by conservation groups, businesses, tourism and recreation advocates and community leaders. 

Their goal? To educate the public and bring attention to special places across Alabama. By doing so, the groups hoped to galvanize communities to get them to adopt, cherish and protect these natural wonders statewide.

Newspaper clip of Danielle Dunbar in the Selma Journal in 1997.

As you will soon see, the idea was very successful.

Then and Now

We asked Ken Wills, the staffer at the AEC who helped create the Natural Wonders list and Alabama’s Commissioner of Conservation Chris Blankenship to describe to us the progress that has been made.  

Mobile Tensaw Delta—A National Treasure

Birds of a Feather–Matt Dees, Black bellied whistling ducks in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta near Meaher State Park. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Perhaps no place in Alabama has received more attention conservation-wise over the past two decades than the Mobile Tensaw Delta. In fact, the state’s Forever Wild program has placed more than 50,000 acres under its ownership. 

“Mobile Tensaw Delta is an unbelievably diverse and beautiful place,” said Blankenship. “Most people, when they drive across the I-65 bridge, they take for granted when they see all those creeks, rivers and trees. It really is a national treasure, and I’m so thrilled we (Alabama’s Forever Wild Program) have over 50,000 acres preserved. It really is a natural wonder for our state.”

Over the years, the Delta’s biggest champion has been Dr. E.O. Wilson, a Birmingham native and one of the world’s most famous and respected scientists who popularized the term “biodiversity.”

The Cahaba River Saves Lilies, Prairies and More

Find a Refuge- -Connor J Paton, Cahaba River NWR, First Light at the Lilies. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Since becoming an Alabama Natural Wonder in 1997, the Cahaba River has added thousands of acres of nature preserves and wildlife areas primarily south of Shelby County. 

The portfolio of public lands is impressive.

This is how Ken Wills described Barton’s Beach, “You can leave Birmingham and in an hour and fifteen minutes you can be in a cypress swamp that looks like Louisiana.” 

  • Cahaba River—Shelby County Park—A partnership between Shelby County and Forever Wild, this 1500+ acre nature preserve has lilies and outstanding recreational opportunities.
  • Old Cahawba Prairie—This Forever Wild property consists of 4566 acres of rare Black Belt prairie adjoining the historic grounds of Old Cahawba, Alabama’s first permanent state capitol site, located at the confluence of the Cahaba and Alabama rivers.

Talladega Mountains—a Recreational Wonderland

Hammocking at Cheaha State Park by Catherine Vaughan. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Just 60 miles or so from Birmingham, the Talladega Mountains Natural Wonder consists of the Talladega National Forest, Forever Wild lands, Cheaha State Park and all the land in between.

“Forever Wild’s Coldwater Mountain is a mountain bike haven,” claims Commissioner Blankenship about the nationally renowned mountain bike trail system which was built by IMBA in the early 2000s. 

Also since becoming a Natural Wonder, the Talladega Mountains have added the Dugger Mountain Wilderness, a federally designated Wilderness Area and the Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge.  

Fun fact: the rare mountain longleaf forest at Fort McClellan requires fire to survive which was inadvertently maintained when the land was used as a bombing range for decades.

Little River Canyon—Alabama’s only National Park Dedicated to a Natural Area

Gregg’s Two Falls in Little River Canyon by Guohai Jin. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Little River Canyon was named a Natural Wonder following its designation as a National Preserve by Congress in 1992.  

Before it became a National Park, Little River Canyon—the deepest canyon east of the Mississippi—was notorious for having auto thieves dump stripped cars into the canyon. Learn more.

Birmingham
Helicopter airlifting a car out of Little River Canyon in 1990. Over five years from the mid-80s to 1990, 139 abandoned cars were removed from the canyon – photo from Jacksonville State University

That reputation has changed, and now Little River Canyon National Preserve is a mecca for recreation of all kinds—hiking, biking, swimming, kayaking, fishing, hunting and wildlife watching. 

Moreover, in 2008, Little River Canyon Center, a partnership between Jacksonville State University and the National Park Service was established near the entrance to the park.

Ken Wills told us the preserve is also slowly becoming a refuge for black bears, which had not been seen in the area for a century.

Monte Sano State Park and Mountain Provides Scenic Views for All

Monte Sano State Park. Photo by Lane Leopard. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Over the years since it was named a Natural Wonder, Monte Sano State Park and the Land Trust of North Alabama have purchased hundreds of acres along the mountain, keeping rampant urban sprawl at bay. 

One of the tracts of land protecting the mountain is the Certain Nature Preserve and Recreation Area, which consists of 340 acres in Madison County. Bought by Forever Wild and managed by the Land Trust of North Alabama, the land includes one of the area’s only permanent mountain springs.

According to Blankenship, Huntsville and Birmingham both benefit economically by having thousands of acres preserved at Monte Sano State Park and Oak Mountain State Park. 

Sipsey River Swamp—Ken Wills’ Favorite Swamp

Sipsey River Swamp. Photo by Ken Wills

The Sipsey River Swamp is Ken Wills’ favorite Natural Wonder. Co-author of the book  Exploring Wild Alabama: A Guide to the State’s Publicly Accessible Natural Areas, Wills fell in love with the place in college.

“When I was going to college in the early 90s, the Sipsey River Swamp, a pristine free-flowing river which lies west of Tuscaloosa, had seen zero protection. Since it became a Natural Wonder, we got the Department of Transportation and Forever Wild to buy 7000 to 8000 acres of public land in that area. It is a stronghold for endangered mussels and the land protects 7 to 8 miles of river frontage.” 

The swamp’s biggest advocate was a grandmotherly Audubon member from Tuscaloosa named Maxine Bryant.  She religiously attended every Forever Wild Board meeting from Mobile to Huntsville for years, pushing the trustees to buy the Sipsey Swamp.

“They bought those initial tracts because they didn’t want to look her in the eye and tell her no,” said Wills with a wide grin.

Bankhead National Forest—A Change in the Way Business is Done

Bankhead National Forest. Photo by Robert Austin Wiley. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Home to the iconic Sipsey Wilderness, the protection of the Bankhead has been aided by a nature-friendly Forest Service Plan over the years. 

“All these National Forests benefited from the revised Forest Plan in the late 1990s,” stated Wills. “There was more focus on protecting biodiversity and less emphasis on producing high-yield fiber pine plantations. We all worked on steering the Forest Service into a much better direction, especially protecting cultural resources.”

The forest also has a local ally—Wild South. The group’s Volunteer Wilderness Ranger program is nationally acclaimed, enlisting and training dozens of volunteers annually to carry out stewardship programs in the Bankhead, the Sipsey Wilderness, Cheaha Wilderness and Dugger Mountain Wilderness.

Volunteer here

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge—Alabama’s Original Coastline

Find a Refuge-Devon M Stapleton, Bon Secour NWR in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

If you want to see what the Alabama coastline looked like before there were snowbirds and Spring-Breakers, visit the Bon Secour National Wildlife

According to Wills, the refuge has done some really good work raising awareness in the area. 

“[the Refuge] has new trails. Basically get people out there into the coastal habitat and show them what the coast used to look like before it was all condos. Things like coastal dunes with sand-pine scrub, one of the rarest habitats that is found only in Alabama and Florida.” 

At 6200 acres of  rare coastal habitat, the National Wildlife Refuge’s French name – Bon Secour – which means safe harbor, genuinely represents the purpose of this place.  A sanctuary for Alabama’s coastal flora and fauna.

Choctawhatchee River Adds a Riverkeeper

Photo of Michael Mullen on the left holding a Gulf Sturgeon, from his Facebook page

Never heard of the Choctawhatchee river? It is Alabama’s longest free-flowing river that runs all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. There are pristine wetlands and the river’s most famous resident is the ancient gulf sturgeon.

Southeast Alabama’s most significant river, the headwaters emerges near Ozark, passes west of Dothan and leaves the state in the town of Geneva.

Since it became a Natural Wonder, the Choctawhatchee’s biggest champion is Michael Mullen, founder of the Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper. Part of the national Waterkeeper network, Mullen keeps a watchful eye on the river.  

“The significance of the Choctawhatchee is that despite all the stresses and strains, it is a very diverse river. It is a river that is just beginning to be discovered for its recreational value.”

Mullen credits the river’s recent designation on the Alabama Scenic River Trail for bringing attention to this natural wonder.

Bartram Trail – Living History

Bartram Trail at the Tuskegee National Forest. Photo from Flickr account at the Forest Service

Here is another fun fact.  In 1970, the Alabama Conservancy, which is now the Alabama Environmental Council led the movement in Alabama to create a Bartram Trail. 

Who was William Bartram?  He is one of America’s original naturalists. Bartram’s books about his travels around the south in the late 1700s provides us a glimpse of what Alabama and the southeast looked like 250 years ago.

In the 1980s a statewide coalition, was able to designate an 8.5 mile route, as the Bartram National Recreational Trail in the Tuskegee National Forest. The AEC named the Bartram Trail a natural wonder as an effort to restart interest in Bartram’s travel.

Visit the Bartram Trail Map – HERE

Over the past two decades, the trail has benefited from a strong Forest Service plan in the late 90s. Moreover in the early 2000s, Forever Wild, established a Bartram Canoe Trail in South Alabama

Next Up

Cahaba Lily at the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge in 2020. Photo Pat Byington for Bham Now

Can Alabama replicate the successful Natural Wonders campaign from the 1990s? What places should be added to the list?

For our final installment, we asked Ken Wills to give us the next 10 Natural Wonders in 2020. See if you agree.

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  • Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.