|From Ashes to Opportunity for the Backcountry Trail|
| July 18, 2011 - Orange Beach, AL (OBA) - A scene of scarred trees scattered here and yonder, smoking stumps and peat moss, clear forest floor where there once sprouted vegetation so thick you couldn’t walk into it, might prompt some observers to say "Aw, that's a shame." |
Phillip West, Coastal Resources Manager for the City of Orange Beach, doesn't quite see it that way. West, the man many call the inspiration behind the Hugh W. Branyon Backcountry Trail, is even more inspired by the possibilities created by the wildfire's clearing.
"We're determined to make lemonade out of a bunch of lemons," West said. "I hope we can turn this into a positive. I hate to say it, but people say there's no such thing as bad publicity."
Gulf State Park Superintendent Mike Guinn has a similar outlook. "It was a great thing," he says of the fire. "Poor timing, couldn't have happened at a worse time, but if we didn't have the forest fire, God only knows how long it would have gone before we actually burned it."
And the public attention generated by the fire gives West the chance to implement some new ideas he's been considering for some time.
"This opens up some opportunities for us," he said. “These projects typically need a private component to assist with the cost of fertilizer, lime, seed and maybe an implement. There's now a good opportunity to seek help with the funding and cost of this."
West wants to use not only the clearer forest to the trail's advantage, but the new fire breaks offer excellent ways to increase areas for wildlife viewing.
"During the response to the recent fire, fire plows went into the woods and created a fire break," he said. "One of the first things we're going to do is to ask the Forestry Commission to come in and rework those. The plows created almost a ditch effect. A reworking disc will pull that back in and create a nice, even surface that we'll be able to maintain, planting it with clover and other wildlife nutrients. And we can use them for footpaths or mountain bike side trips."
He would even like to see some trails into the woods overlooking areas where wildlife is likely to be.
"Expanding watchable wildlife opportunities is kind of a big part of what we want to do now that things are opened up and we can better assess where to put this stuff," West said. “We can go in and see parts of the park we haven't been able to see before and we can identify areas that might lend themselves to creating a permanent opening, like a wildlife opening, that we plant and keep planted twice a year, spring and fall.”
"Our hopes are to go ahead and create the wildlife openings. It won't be a one-way, but it will probably be an out-and-back to a blind where people can go in and actually look over the opening and see if they can get pictures of the wildlife."
West also wants these areas to be maintained as fire breaks for future fires.
"Those fire breaks have created areas where we can plant for wildlife in those breaks, yet still keep them viable as a break," he said. "We need to use this publicity and people's concern to focus on meaningful projects that help the trail, help the wildlife and help us deal with future wildfire management.” Over in Gulf State Park, Guinn says post-wildfire efforts there will concentrate on maintaining and getting more lanes and trails cut to battle future fires. "Right now we're going to work on obtaining grants to do what we need to do to prevent this from happening again," Guinn said. "We don't need another forest fire. We're going to have to do some fire breaks, we're going to have to do some logging, get some of the fuel out there that still remains. That's going to be a long, expensive process."
The current trail system, Guinn said, was a big help in battling the wildfire. He'd like to have more trails to aid in the next fight, but money is going to be a problem.
"If it weren't for (West) I don't think we'd have this trail system and we'd have had a heck of a battle," Guinn said. "I don't know if we could have gotten bulldozers in there to keep it from spreading as much as it did. I'd rather have a permanent fire break. Maybe put some gravel on them. I'd personally rather see asphalt. Because that to me is a sure enough permanent fire break. You could get to the front of the fire, assuming it hadn't jumped that point, so quick." Adding new trails, however, will be slowed by budget constraints. "As far as the trails are concerned, though, I'm not really sure what we're going to be able to do," he said. "We're going to work with Orange Beach on that. Phillip West is great at getting grants and I'm hoping that he can do the majority of that part of it."
An immediate project West hopes to complete is a trail from the back entrance of the Publix Supermarket to Catman Road. "It's going to be meaningful for all the campground folks," West said. "Just get on a bike, ride to that shopping center without getting on the highway at all. We think we'll probably draw a lot of business that way because if you're a camper you probably have the mind set you like being in nature, you like being outside. We want to finish that. We have a grant to build the base course for it, but we need to get that paved." Long term, West sees a connection to Fort Morgan Road near the Gulf Shores WalMart that would provide a link to that trail, the end result being a trail from Orange Beach Boulevard to Fort Morgan, crossing only one major highway.
"I believe if we create that system, that big regional network, for this island to have that, to have the Branyon Trail System that goes from Fort Morgan to Orange Beach without being on the road, we can compete with anybody as far as being proud of our trail facility," West said. "I know the Alabama Hiking Society wants to connect all this to the Alabama Trail which would go all the way to the Dismals Canyon and to Tennessee. It's part of a conceptual framework that includes this." From his original idea for the trails until today and the blossoming of ideas following the wildfire, West does have a system he can be proud of. "It's something I had a passion for when I first moved here. I saw all that potential and thought we could easily link this up and have a kicking trail system," he said. "Thankfully, Hugh said 'if you can get it done, go for it’.”
"Any day I go out there now, just any day, I think nobody's going to be out here on a random Tuesday morning in July. But it's not true anymore. You see people from all over. It's created almost a Central Park effect. I would say, from our original concept, we’re probably close to 80 or 90 percent complete on the ground, as far as the network of trails that we wanted."