Alabama is home to a wide array of natural areas that are managed by federal, state, and private agencies. The non-profit Nature Conservancy (TNC) has helped to protect more than 120,000 acres of environmentally significant areas in Alabama since the state chapter opened in 1989. TNC is a worldwide organization that specializes in acquiring wild lands that have significant natural or geological features or that support important wildlife or plant populations. The Nature Conservancy's mission is to preserve the plants, animals, and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the habitats they need to survive. To achieve this goal, TNC has developed a strategic, science-based planning process, called Conservation by Design, to identify the highest-priority places.
In many cases, TNC provides funds donors and members for the initial acquisition of the land and then turns the land over to the state or federal government, either through an outright property transfer or through a subsequent sale. In Alabama, much of the land that is encompassed in what is now the Walls of Jericho, Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, and Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge was originally acquired by the Nature Conservancy.
Most of the land acquired through the efforts of TNC have been transferred to the state of Alabama or to the federal government, but TNC owns and manages 16 sites. These sites represent varied and distinct natural areas in Alabama and encompass more than 5,500 acres. The preserves range from the foothills of northern Alabama to the beaches of the Gulf Coast and run the gamut from leafy glades that host rare plants to caves harboring endangered bats. Public access to many of the preserves is limited because of their fragile nature.
Nature Conservancy Preserves
Barton's Beach on the Cahaba Preserve in Perry County encompasses 125 acres of Deep South wetland, with tupelo, river birch, and towering bald cypress trees festooned in Spanish moss. The preserve, acquired in 2000, boasts profuse hardwood forests and sandbars. The beach itself is actually a large sandbar that is a nesting site for turtles.
Brasher Woods Preserve in Etowah County is an 80-acre old-growth hardwood forest obtained in 1995. It is home to a variety of wildlife, including white-tail deer and migratory songbirds.
Chitwood Barrens Preserve in DeKalb County was initially purchased in 1985 to preserve the extremely rare green pitcher plant. Its 53 acres protect other rare plants, including the longleaf sunflower and the Little River Canyon onion, which have extremely limited ranges.
Coosa Bog Preserve, in Cherokee County, was acquired in 1989. This tiny preserve, just 3.3 acres, is home to a large colony of green pitcher plants (Sarracen ia oreophila), a federally listed endangered species.
Dennis Cove Preserve was the first Alabama acquisition for the Nature Conservancy in 1981. It is a 159-acre area of bayous, tidal flats, and marsh along the mouth of Fowl River in southern Mobile County near the southern tip of Mon Louis Island. The flats and marshes sustain a variety of shorebirds and waterfowl, including ospreys, American egrets, brown pelicans, green herons, and great blue herons.
Dry Creek Preserve, acquired in 1986, is a stretch of hardwood forest along the banks of Dry Creek in St. Clair County. It harbors one of only seven known populations of the endangered Alabama leatherflower (Clematis socialis), which grows only in Alabama and Georgia. Although the site is relatively small at 31 acres, it supports migratory songbirds and a local beaver colony.
Gulf Creek Canyon Preserve, in St. Clair County near the private Horse Pens 40 nature park, sits high on a mountain overlooking central Alabama. Obtained in 1999, the preserve is split by Gulf Creek, which drains through a gorge several hundred feet deep. The 125 acres include an impressive array of vertical cliffs, a tumbling creek, and seasonal waterfalls. The upper reaches are covered with thick hardwood forests.
Kathy Stiles Freeland Bibb County Glades Preserve, also along the Cahaba River, was acquired in 1997 to protect a large variety of rare plants, eight of which are new to science and one—the dwarf horse nettle—had not been found since the 1830s and was believed to be extinct until its discovery here in 1993. Sixty-one rare plant species have been found on the preserve's 480 acres. The Little Cahaba River flows through the preserve, and the remains of Brighthope Furnace, Alabama's earliest known ironworks, are hidden in the thick forest.
Keel Mountain Preserve was acquired in 2001 to protect the Morefield's leatherflower, an endangered plant found only in the immediate area. The preserve also encompasses steep rock cliffs, sinkholes, a sparkling creek, and a thick forest of oak, hickory, and pine. One particularly notable sinkhole, dubbed "Lost Sink," features a waterfall that disappears into its depths. The 310-acre preserve near Huntsville, Madison County, is home to numerous migratory songbirds and a large population of whitetail deer.
Prairie Grove Glades, acquired in 1995, is the largest intact glade left in Alabama and is a haven for a dozen species of rare plants. A glade is defined as a small open area of naturally occurring vegetation. Most Alabama glades have been bulldozed or paved. The preserve's 191 acres in western Alabama near Moulton, Lawrence County, are a patchwork of open rocky areas covered with rare flowering plants, such as Harper's umbrella plant and the Alabama larkspur, and shaded groves of hardwoods and cedar trees.
Pratt's Ferry Preserve, on the south bank of the Cahaba River in Bibb County, was obtained in 1991. The preserve is only 12 acres but protects several rare wildflowers. One resident shrub, the Alabama croton, is only found in the Cahaba River and Black Warrior River watersheds.
Rabbit Island is a 12-acre coastal marsh island, many of which are rapidly disappearing as a result of extensive coastal development. Located
near Ono Island in Baldwin County, the island remains a wild and natural habitat for marsh rabbits, water snakes, and diamondback terrapins, and is also an
important site for migrating shorebirds. The island was acquired in 1997.
Roberta Case P ine Hills Preserve was established in 1999 in Autauga County as a haven for one of the largest populations of the federally endangered Alabama canebrake pitcher plant, which is found nowhere else in the world. The preserve's 374 acres are home to a number of colonies of the plant, which thrives in seepages scattered among the longleaf pine forest that dominates the preserve.
Roy B. Whitaker Preserve, on the banks of the Paint Rock River in Jackson County, consists of open fields and river bottomlands that host a lush community of hardwoods, including hickory, chestnut oak, and green ash. Acquired in 2005, the preserve is one of TNC's newest acquisitions, covering 323 acres with more than 1.5 miles of Paint Rock River frontage. The Whitaker preserve is a key link in one of TNC's major efforts in Alabama: preserving and restoring as much of the Paint Rock River watershed as possible. The river and its major tributaries provide critical habitat for migratory songbirds as well as three rare species of fish, and 12 rare mussel species, including the pale lilliput and the Alabama lampshell, which are found nowhere else in the world.
Sharp-Bingham Preserve in Jackson County was originally purchased in 2004 and more than doubled in size with an additional land purchase in 2007. It is the largest of the Nature Conservancy's preserves in Alabama at 2,850 acres. It contains an extensive cave system, with 30 caves identified and perhaps miles of linkages waiting to be discovered. The cave system also hosts a resident population of the Tennessee cave salamander and occasional bat populations.
Splinter Hill Bog Preserve, in northern Baldwin County, is a refuge for rare animals such as Bachmann's sparrow, the Florida pine snake, gopher tortoises,
and numerous rare plant species, including a dozen types of carnivorous plants. Acquired in 2004, the preserve's 921 acres
provide diverse habitats ranging from longleaf pine forests to swamps and rivers. The preserve is also an important stopover
site for migratory songbirds.
Birchard, Bill. Nature's Keepers: The Remarkable Story of How the Nature Conservancy Became the Largest Environmental Group in the World. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.
Grove, Noel. Earth's Last Great Places: Exploring the Nature Conservancy Worldwide. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2003.
Thomas V. Ress
Published October 30, 2007
Last updated May 25, 2012