The Freshwater Land Trust (FLT) is a Birmingham non-profit that acquires, conserves and connects open spaces that are critical for the protection of waterways and the creation of recreation for the people of the community. The FLT has, in fact, helped preserve more than 10,000 acres of land over the 16 years of its existence.
The FLT, originally called the Black Warrior-Cahaba Rivers Land Trust, was created under the terms of a 1996 consent decree against Jefferson County’s repeated violations of the federal Clean Water Act.
After a federal judge found Jefferson County guilty of allowing untreated or partially treated sewage to be dumped into streams, the County was given an interesting way to spend the $30 million in fines they would have been forced to pay to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The County would be allowed to set up the land trust and buy parcels of environmentally sensitive lands in order to better protect area waterways.
Under a new greenways program, those funds were used to purchase 3,500 acres, primarily along Five Mile Creek, Village Creek, Valley Creek, Shades Creek, Turkey Creek and the Cahaba River.
What’s exciting, however, and what could probably never have been anticipated when the program began, is what happened after the court-ordered program ended in 2006 and Jefferson County ended its relationship to the Land Trust, now under its new name.
The FLT became an independent non-profit organization and, under the leadership since 2001 of executive director Wendy Jackson, aggressively pursued further grants and donations and begin matching up funds with various partners who wished to preserve green space in our area.
As a result of these efforts have come scores of other successful projects, large and small, including the new, 1,108-acre Red Mountain Park along the western end of Red Mountain, the creation of which – on land donated by U.S. Steel – the FLT helped broker. The FLT has also helped create such important preserves as the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve and Tapawingo Springs in Pinson.
And now there are more successes to celebrate, successes that are finally bringing the organization to a level of public recognition it has probably long deserved.
The FLT has seen the launch of the new Red Rock Ridge & Valley Trail System, the result of a greenway master plan for Jefferson County that the Trust helped bring to fruition through a long process of planning and public comment.
And in late June, the federal government announced that the City of Birmingham – with the help of the FLT and along with numerous other partners, including the cities of Midfield, Fairfield and Homewood – had been awarded a $10 million TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant to aid the new greenways program and help with recovery in the Pratt City neighborhood badly damaged by the April 2011 storms.
As the FLT’s Junior Board prepares to host the fourth annual Land Aid fundraiser at Avondale Brewing Company on July 27, these recent high-profile successes have thrust the FLT into the limelight.
At Land Aid, attendees can drink beer, including a special brew Avondale Brewing will be serving just for this event. They can listen to bands, including Rollin’ in the Hay, an Alabama bluegrass band.
The FLT’s positive attention has made it easier to generate public interest in this latest edition of Land Aid, according to Junior Board chair Caroline Yielding, who spoke to Weld in a telephone interview.
“It’s exciting that finally the community is learning more about what [FLT] is, and when we go out and say, ‘Hey, Freshwater Land Trust is having a benefit concert,’ no one asks now, ‘What is Freshwater Land Trust?’ Yielding said. “They’ve all heard about us through other things.”
Yielding says attendance at the first three Land Aids averaged about 150, but she hopes for a significant jump this year. “We really think it’s going to be huge.”
The Jefferson Country greenways plan, or the Red Rock system, could eventually include more than 700 miles of trails reaching 30 or so towns and cities in the area.
It will take many decades and persistent community and funding efforts to complete and will focus on a few major trails, including along the Cahaba River, as well as Five Mile, Shades, and Village creeks.
The greenway plan was born when the FLT and the Jefferson County Department of Health got funding from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to help find ways to promote “active and healthy living” in an area with all sorts of health problems, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease. During the public-comment phase, planners visited dozens of area communities and received comment from about 3,000 people. The goal was to find the places where people really wanted to walk or bike.
There are many benefits, and not just physical or even emotional benefits, of providing this “green” infrastructure. There are positive economic outcomes for cities that provide their citizens with opportunities for healthy recreation and a reconnection to nature.
According to Jackson, she met with skepticism a few years ago when she suggested that preserving green space can have positive economic impacts on a community, but that is changing. “Now, instead of having to go to Austin (Texas) or Chattanooga (Tenn.) or Little Rock, Ark., we have examples right here,” she says, citing things like Railroad Park downtown and Red Mountain Park. “You build the kind of community that has the quality of life that people want, and they can help with the renaissance of community.” According to Jackson, some studies show that green space and similar amenities can push property values up by as much 20 percent.
In late June, when Birmingham’s receipt of the $10 million federal TIGER grant was announced, the FLT announced that it was proud to have spearheaded a public-private partnership that came together to show support and provide local match in submitting the proposal. It was the second attempt by the city to get TIGER funds to help support the greenways project.
It is an ability to bring together diverse coalitions of people – black, white; liberal, conservative; business people and greenies – that seems to make the FLT so effective. And Jackson, with long experience in real estate, seems to be perceived as being passionate about conservation while not seeming to be anti-business or anti-growth.
Charles Scribner of water advocacy eco-group Black Warrior Riverkeeper agrees that the FLT’s ability to foster compromise and even collaboration between opposing groups is what makes the group so valuable.
“From our standpoint at Black Warrior River Keeper, [the FLT] serves a really effective role in being a kind of intermediary between us and polluters that we sometimes go up against in litigations,” Scribner told Weld in a phone interview. “Sometimes our lawsuits on pollution issues end in a settlement, and the most important issue is that the pollution problem be fixed, but another positive aspect is that the polluter often sets up a supplemental environmental project (SEP), which means that they are setting aside a certain amount of money for some sort of remediation project – be it land conservation, or restoring polluted areas to a more natural state, or it could be a bio-diversity study.”
Scribner says that the FLT is very skilled at helping the parties to a dispute agree to these remediations and carry them out successfully. “The Land Trust is uniquely capable in doing that, not only because of their expertise in land conservation but because both the environmental community and the business community are comfortable with them because they work with both sides so frequently,” he said, adding that, “For example, in their conference room they have awards from Alabama Power and Riverkeeper to show that they can work with both sides.”
Michael Sznajderman has a unique perspective on the role the FLT plays in bridging gaps between large companies and, for example, eco-advocacy groups. He is employed by Alabama Power as senior communications strategist, but he is also involved in a lot of environmental projects for the firm and is also chairman of the board at FLT.
“One of the things that make the Land Trust unique is that it is a non-advocacy environmental organization,” Sznajderman told Weld in a phone interview. “There are a lot of environmental advocacy groups in the community, and they follow their missions and some of their missions may not jive with those of other organizations and interests in the community sometimes, but the Land Trust is very focused on land preservation and conservation in a way that brings divergent coalitions together for the greater good for the community. These groups may differ on other issues, but through the Land Trust, they can find common ground to support certain projects that the people in that coalition believe can make this a better community, like Red Mountain Park.”
What’s the big priority the next year or so for the FLT? “It’s critical that we don’t lost momentum on the greenways plan,” Jackson says. “We have to spend the TIGER dollars and spend it well.” She said that once you get in the federal pipeline and complete a good project, you are more likely to receive additional monies.
According to Jackson, the first major goal of the greenways program is to open at least 50 miles of trails the first five years.
And according to Jackson, all donors – even small donors – should realize that their gifts are important as the FLT continues its work. This is especially true because of the need for the FLT to help provide matching monies to obtain large grants. “Whether you are a $25 donor or a $25,000 donor, every one of those dollars helped make the TIGER grant possible,” she said.
According to Jackson, only about ten percent of the donations that go directly to the FLT go to administrative costs. She also notes that in the case of many of the largest grants that people hear announced in the media, the funds go not to the FLT but to the applicants – the City of Birmingham, for example, in the case of the TIGER grant – that the FLT has assisted in obtaining the funding.
The FLT now helps conserve land in eight central Alabama counties – Jefferson, Shelby, Blount, Chilton, Bibb, St. Clair, Tuscaloosa and Walker.
The FLT is accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, which recognizes it as meeting standards of excellence, upholding the public’s trust and ensuring that conservation efforts are permanent.
The Freshwater Land Trust’s Junior Board will host the fourth annual Land Aid fundraiser at Avondale Brewing Company, Friday, July 27, at 7 p.m. The event will feature local bands Rollin’ in the Hay, David & Molly, and Jon Vogel. Rollin’ in the Hay recently played at the Hangout Festival in Gulf Shores, Ala., and at Bonnaroo. Red Mountain Crawfish Co. will serve a low-country shrimp boil. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 the night of the event. To purchase tickets for Land Aid, or to get more information about the programs of the Freshwater land Trust, call (205) 417-2777 or go to www.freshwaterlandtrust.org.
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