MY TURN | Nancy Callahan: Saving the M-bend
Published: Sunday, August 23, 2009 at 3:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 22, 2009 at 7:51 p.m.
The Eastern Bypass has been in the news again. This time, as reported by Jason Morton in The Tuscaloosa News on Aug. 15, its impact regards the M-bend of Hurricane Creek and land along the north side of that double curve of water.
The area contains some of the most splendid aspects of the entire Appalachian creek, which starts in Vance and runs 28 miles to Holt, where it spills into the Black Warrior River.
In May 2008, the family of the late Stanley Park Sr. (1898-1981), a local insurance agent for more than a half century, sold 249 acres fronting three miles of the M-bend to the Trust for Public Lands, a California land conservancy. TPL held the land until the Tuscaloosa County Commission could approve its purchase by the Tuscaloosa County Park and Recreation Authority in July 2008. PARA ownership became official last September.
The idea for PARA acquisition came from John Wathen, director of Friends of Hurricane Creek. Charlie Scribner of Birmingham’s Black Warrior Riverkeeper put the appropriate parties in touch with TPL.
Through no fault of Morton, his piece was bewildering. For about 20 years, the Alabama Department of Transportation has dilly-dallied with a plan to construct a federally
funded, four-lane bypass on the eastern side of the city, at the request of city government. The route would slice through the M-bend of the creek with a bridge, tearing apart a treasure trove of natural wonders.
It includes magnificent honeycomb bluffs, ancient cedars, tree fossils etched on boulders of unusual shapes with holes picked out by early coal miners, wildflowers, wild flowering shrubs, pileated woodpeckers and other biodiversity. Evidence says that Native Americans left their marks here and in some cases the burials of their dead.
The land is on Alabama Highway 216, the Old Birmingham Highway, accessible from the highway’s bridge over Hurricane Creek. It is between Five Points on University Boulevard East and Peterson. From a bird’s eye view, two stream curves adjoining the acreage look like the letter M.
During most all those years, the property was in the private hands of the Park family. Since it was deeded to PARA, many, including myself, mythically thought, or hoped, that ALDOT would simply vanish, or find some place else to route the bypass. After all, the purchase was a way to keep the preserve intact.
The city of Tuscaloosa has a history of favoring high-end residential areas over infrastructure threats. Perhaps it was time to give a break to a huge publicly owned wilderness tract to be enjoyed forever, for free, by everyone from children and those in wheelchairs to, uh, the poor?
From Morton’s findings, ALDOT is not going anywhere. It will continue with its plan to cut through the M-bend acreage, taking a
1,200-foot-wide ribbon of right-of-way for its grand project. Transportation officials are talking to PARA about buying 75 acres.
The article quoted L. Dee Rowe, division engineer of ALDOT’s Tuscaloosa office, as saying that since PARA bought the M-bend property, neither that agency nor the city has requested that she seek ways to lessen the effect of the proposed bypass on the preserve. She reportedly stated she would be open to a redesign upon city request.
She added that ALDOT got involved because the project was federally funded. “We will consider anything that the city is willing to entertain,” she was quoted as saying.
From Mayor Walt Maddox, who favors the bypass, I interpreted his statements as those of someone wanting to balance transportation needs and environmental protection. But apparently to get himself off the hook, he said the bypass plan was set in motion long before he became a city councilman or mayor, and that it was his understanding that
ALDOT drew the necessary plan. “We’ve been very clear from the beginning that ALDOT makes those decisions.”
Clear as mud.
I asked Jim Shaddox, president of Friends of Hurricane Creek, to unravel that mayoral statement. As Shaddox read the story, Rowe said routing was the city’s plan; Maddox said it was that of the state.
“It’s a way of bouncing responsibility back and forth between the city and the state department of transportation,” said Shaddox, whose group has always contended through a carefully devised method that the bridge should be placed 1,500 feet to 2,000 feet north of the M-bend. “We would like to know who actually is the decision-maker. Is it joint or is it one or the other? If it is neither, we will be glad to make that decision for them.”
City leaders have long claimed that the bypass, including the M-bend bridge route, would uplift local economy. That may be, but Shaddox said he would like to see a cost-benefit traffic study proving the advantage of routing the bypass bridge through the M-bend. “Such a study has never been published,” he lamented.
My memories of this angst go back at least 11 years. Told that an M-bend bridge was coming soon, in the late 1990s, Friends of Hurricane Creek and the Sierra Club of West Alabama spawned a task force to convince the Tuscaloosa District of ALDOT to reroute the bridge. We were Johnny-come-latelies because an earlier published map of the Eastern Bypass route in The Tuscaloosa News was incorrect, leaving out Hurricane Creek.
Smug and insulated, the local transportation folks would not communicate with us. Don Siegelman was governor. State transportation administrators were equally as arrogant. Siegelman wrote a letter to his state transportation director, Jimmy Biggs, of which I have a copy, telling him to save Hurricane Creek from the bypass plan. Curiously, the creek remained in the plan, but the bypass never got built. Neither did the M-bend bypass bridge.
A private contractor with
ALDOT told me one day in 2003 that Friends of Hurricane Creek had stalled progress on the bypass.
In that same year, at a town hall meeting held by U.S. Rep. Artur Davis at the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse, I aired my concerns about ALDOT. “What should we do?” I cried.
At that time, Congressman Davis wanted to earn a reputation for himself as “the environmental congressman,” not just within Alabama but for the nation, as he had told leaders in the save-the-creek movement. “The key,” he responded, “is communication. You need to communicate with ALDOT.”
Twenty insufferable minutes later, I was able to regain his attention. “You said communication is the key, but the fact is, ALDOT is not willing to communicate with us. They are not even willing to spit on us.”
The congressman responded that in the future, if ALDOT officials are unwilling to communicate with us, we should let him know. He will do something about it. I believed him then and now.
With hope, I read in the Aug. 15 article that L. Dee Rowe was open to suggestions. It has taken at least 11 years for her turnaround. She should be held to that published remark and respected for her willingness to change.Now that Davis is running for governor, may we remember his offer to intercede with ALDOT if it should be unwilling to listen to those who care about wild magnolias, big rocks and watering holes
Maddox needs to get his head out of the sand. Never mind that the bypass was begotten 20 years ago. He is the current mayor. It is his charge to exert leadership in this matter, do his homework and avoid talking without depth of knowledge.
May we heed the words of Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard entomologist hailed as one of the world’s leading scientists. An Alabamian who received his bachelor and master’s degrees in biology from the University of Alabama, Wilson wrote in “Naturalist,” his 1994 book, that “around the world, wild lands are being increasingly shattered by human action, the pieces steadily reduced in size and isolated from one another.”
Isolated from one another. Sounds familiar. Perhaps they are cut through by ferocious bypasses.
Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, upon hearing that the park preserve was being sold to PARA, sent down a congratulatory letter from Harvard, saying his first field research was on Hurricane Creek, he a 17-year-old freshman. Published in the summer 2008 newsletter of the “Black Warrior Riverkeeper,” it said in part, “Through the years I’ve wanted to see the creek, which is so close to the university, made into a nature reserve. I once urged a president of UA to acquire it for a field station.”
Given Wilson’s words, would it be too much to ask for top-level university interest in this issue?
Meanwhile, Rowe said roadwork begins in 2016 or 2017, so we have seven years, more or less, to work this all out with ALDOT, with the city or with — well, I am just not sure. Whatever transpires, if anything, in this yawningly slow local political chapter, note that in November, PARA will observe its 40th anniversary. It is reason to shout.
Hiking the nature preserve along the M-bend or going into the creek from the 216 Bridge entrance to fish, canoe, kayak or swim could be a rite of high celebration. It would be a way to honor the memory of Stanley Park Sr., who, according to his son Stanley Park Jr., would have wanted nothing more than for the land to become public for the enjoyment of all.
“Daddy loved it so,” said the elder Park’s daughter, Mary Angelyn Fisher. “He didn’t ever want to see even one limb cut off of a tree.” Among his greatest pleasures was riding the land on Diamond, his horse, she added.
Fisher’s late husband, Billy Tinsley, turned part of the place into a pasture and kept cows there for a time, along with their own horse. He also operated Oakwood Beach, a concession for creek-goers just off the 216 Bridge.
Fisher said that in the early 1970s, Tinsley named the place “Punkin Acres” for their adolescent daughter, Punkin, who is Peggy Tinsley Lewis. He made it official by placing a sign on a pine tree. Still, the sign prevails, the tree growing around it.
The preserve is open sun-up till sundown, said Don Kelly, PARA’s executive director. If groups want to go, contact any PARA facility staff member for particulars. Park on right-of-way next to the bridge. Expect some steep gradients. No restrooms are available yet. Alcohol and other addictive drugs are off-limits. Leave it the way you found it. One guarantee: You will return a changed person.
Happy 40th, PARA.
Nancy Callahan is a writer who lives in Tuscaloosa. She may be reached at email@example.com.