“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mighty Mouse

If you travel along the precious few miles of Alabama’s Gulf Coast you will encounter an almost unending string of development. Condos, beach houses, restaurants, T-shirt shacks, golf courses, and motels dominate practically every foot of beachfront property.

This is not news of course; every state that has coastline is watching relentless development eat up its beaches and stretches of undeveloped shoreline are increasingly uncommon. One of these remnant jewels of wild coast still remains in Alabama. Drive west along Alabama Highway 180 out of the gaudy chaos of haphazard growth that stains the town of Gulf Shores and the character of the land changes immediately. Barely two miles down this small two-lane road the condos disappear, restaurants are hard to find, and spreading Southern Oak trees dripping with Spanish Moss form a shady arch over the hot asphalt.

Welcome to Fort Morgan Peninsula, a thin finger of land that thrusts westward for some eighteen miles, separating Mobile Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. With relatively untouched coastal land becoming a rarity, the peninsula is an anachronism; a beautiful, sleepy vestige of natural dunes and beaches. Unassuming private beach homes, fishing shacks, scrub land, and wild dunes are about all that there is. Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge sits halfway down the peninsula, protecting 6000 acres of land.

The attraction of Fort Morgan Peninsula is this isolation and raw splendor. For those whose idea of a great beach vacation is barhopping, dancing, golfing, and parasailing, Fort Morgan is not on the radar screen. Vacationers come here for the silence, the dark moonlit beaches. But with so little of Alabama’s beachfront left, there are many who have other ideas for Fort Morgan. Something on the order of Gulf Shores West. Developers have plans to build a number of high-density condos, practically nonexistent on the peninsula now.

This is where a tiny peninsula resident comes into the picture—perhaps the only one who can save Fort Morgan Peninsula. The Alabama Beach Mouse, an appealing little creature with large ears and huge protruding eyes, has become the center of a struggle between bulldozers and nature lovers. Thirty years ago this little mouse was living large among the beaches and dunes of Alabama. Then a combination of habitat destruction by development and tropical storms and the appearance of feral cats decimated the mouse population. Consequently, the mouse was declared an endangered species in 1985 and habitat critical to mouse survival was designated along parts of Alabama’s Gulf Coast, including parts of Fort Morgan Peninsula.

Which brings us to today. The planned condos will be built in areas that are designated as mouse habitat, but federal laws restrict many activities that may negatively affect habitat of an endangered species. In September the Sierra Club sued to suspend construction pending a determination of whether planned development would impact mouse habitat. A ruling in favor of the mouse could limit growth on much of the peninsula.

But, as with many environmental battles, this one will not end with one ruling and it will take time before a final decision is reached. In the meantime the developers, who view the peninsula as wasted land needing the golden touch of restaurants, malls, and bars that has already blighted the rest of Alabama’s coast, are waiting in the wings while peninsula residents and property owners who are opposed to further development are anxiously hoping for a favorable result.

What is certain is that the outcome of this battle will determine the future of Fort Morgan. Will it be much as it is now, its charm and beauty intact, or just another example of beachfront sprawl gone awry? For human residents, it could mean the end of an idyllic paradise. For the Alabama Beach Mouse it could mean, simply, the end.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

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