26 July 2005




Ecotourism for Marion and Perry County


By Thomas H. Wilson, biologist

Judson College, Marion, Al


Outdoor recreation, relaxation, sports, and education are hot money producing items for any rural community.  Marion and Perry County are poised to gain significant economic benefit and fame from the “green and wild” industry.  The natural diversity of our area is possibly the greatest of any area in the State.  We are on the fall line of the Appalachian Mountains and are on the edge of the Upper Coastal Plain and the Black Belt Prairie.  We have the Cahaba River along with its oxbow lakes which has the greatest biodiversity of any river in North America. There are over 200 lakes and ponds in our area including those of the Marion State Fish Hatchery.  This expanse of freshwater serves as magnets for migratory waterfowl.  And, it is only three easy hours to the Gulf of Mexico.


Perry Lakes Park and the adjacent Barton Beach Cahaba River Wildlife Preserve are starting to have an ecotourism impact on our community and this is only the beginning of this growing industry.  Perry Lakes Park has the only old growth hardwood forest owned by the State of Alabama.  All other State Parks and forests are managed for wildlife, game, and commercial timber harvest.  The Park belonged to the Federal Government, U. S. Fish and Wildlife for most of the 20th century.  This forest and area of the Park was designated an official U.S. Fish and Wildlife Wilderness in the early 1900s and this management plan has been honored and followed to the present time.  There are no stumps in the Park…no sign of past logging or alteration of the environment in the majority of the property.  Jack Snow and other past Marion Hatchery Managers, Joe Addison, and Nick Nichols of Marion along with Perry County Probate Judge Donald Cook, are to be commended for protecting the Perry Lakes Park forest and making it the unique and valuable ecotourism and educational resource that it is today.


If you want to see a mature forest with huge, old trees filling the canopy, and, if you want to see forest floor flowers that only occur in dense shade and deep humus, you best go to Perry Lakes Park.  I once saw three Great Horned Owls perched in the same oak tree in the Park.  The Park web site contains a Bird List that is unmatched for the number of species for any single area in Alabama north of Dauphin Island.


Perry Lakes Park has a fine diversity of trees, wildflowers, shrubs and ferns.  Many of the trees have been identified and are labeled with common and scientific names. I have grants pending to create outdoor classrooms in several areas of the Park.  These areas will have signs that teach about the particular ecosystem. There are six Alabama State Champion Trees in the Park and I am in the process of nominating many more champions from this wonderful and unique outdoor treasure.  Auburn University Rural Studios students have build a pavilion, restrooms, and a covered bridge and will soon complete a 100 foot tall birding tower that is positioned on the edge of an oxbow lake in the Park.


Barton’s Beach Cahaba River Preserve is beside the Park and a trail leads to the largest sand and gravel bar on the Cahaba River.  Barton’s Beach is a spectacular natural area and a wonderful outdoor laboratory for learning about aquatic ecosystems. Two Perry and Dallas County creeks have good ecotourism potential.   Oakmulgee Creek contains walleye and spotted bass.  This creek along with Washington Creek could be important for local outdoor adventures.


The Marion State Fish Hatchery is beside the Park and its old growth woods and many ponds have attracted birders for half a century from around the State and Nation.  A pair of Bald Eagles is presently nesting in a giant pine beside one of the Hatchery ponds.    


Our county neighbors are cashing in on their natural heritage.  Bibb County has the new Bibb County Cahaba River Wildlife Preserve with its showcase of Cahaba Lilies.  The Bibb County Glades is an exceptional place for rare plants.  The Cahaba River Park at Centreville is a fine place for families and for festivals.  The Oakmulgee Division of the Talladega National Forest which is only 20 miles from Marion is home to over 100 colonies of endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers.  Tannehill and Brierfield County Parks are wonderful natural and historical areas of Bibb County.


 Paul Grist State Park north of Selma and only 15 miles from Marion offers trails, a big lake for fishing, recreation, picnics and a pavilion for parties. The Old Cahawba Archaeological Park at the mouth of the Cahaba River in Dallas County is an interesting place to visit and to learn Alabama history.


We must act now to ensure that the significant birding areas of Bibb, Perry, and Dallas counties are part of this new outdoor recreational and educational movement.  The Central Alabama Birding Trail is now officially started.  The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the U. S. Corp of Engineers recently signed a cooperative agreement at the Holy Ground Battlefield Park in White Hall.  Birding is the number one participation sport in the Western World.  Birders spend about $44 billion dollars a year on birding activities.  Thirty five million dollars are spent annually in Alabama by birders and that will increase as communities develop their resources and when the Northern, Central and Coastal birding trails are connected.


Our area must be officially included in the Central Alabama Birding Trail.  The Perry County Commission is well aware of this new source of money and jobs.  Their management of the Perry Lakes Park and their support of the Auburn University Rural Studios projects at the Park will quickly position the Park and our area as a premium stop on the Birding Trail. The 100 foot tall birding tower presently being constructed at the Park by Rural Studio students will be a major tourist and birding site of the South.   My NRCS Earth Team and I  have established trails in Perry Lakes Park and are initiating a new birding trail near the Hwy 14 Sprott Bridge landing. 


We must convince the appropriate State political people to create and install a State boat ramp (canoe take-out) at the old Fikes Ferry road bridge (East side of the river at Radford on old Perry County Hwy 10).  This is the only boat take-out between the Sprott ramp below the Hwy 14 bridge and the Hwy 6 bridge.  However, erosion and fallen trees now make this takeout almost unusable.  The seven miles of Cahaba River from the Sprott Bridge to this County Hwy 10 proposed take-out is the most beautiful section of the river.  The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) has allocated funds for the construction of boat access on the Cahaba River.  I am working with the Cahaba River Clean Water Partnership, which Perry County is a member, to get the Radford ramp approved and built. 


The Golden Club Swamp six miles north of the Sprott Store on Hwy 183 is a natural wonder in March when the entire swamp glows golden yellow with arum lilies in bloom.  I have proposed making the Golden Club Swamp a Perry County Preserve to the Clean Water Partnership.  Birders and Garden Club members from around the State have made annual March visits for many decades to see the beautiful lilies of this swamp and the Prothonotary Warblers that make it their home.


The Clean Water Partnership is working to wed the Cahaba River Trace cultural heritage project with the developing natural heritage component of the Cahaba River corridor.  This proposed Trace and its scenic map will rival the Natchez Trace in Mississippi.  Be part of the progress in ecotourism in Marion and Perry County by providing support and encouragement for these and other outdoor recreation projects. Watch this paper for further notices of citizen action responses to help make Marion and Perry County a wonderful place to live and to visit