50 Hikes 50 States–Mississippi

For our second hike in the day, we left Alabama and headed to Mississippi for our next hike in our 50 Hikes 50 States Project. After getting stuck in a holiday parade, we found the peace and quiet of the Mississippi Sandhill Crane Wildlife Refuge so joyous. We even saw some cranes.

The Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge has a terrible bisection–Interstate 10. It was because of Interstate 10 and an active advocate who successfully lobbied for the first Wildlife Refuge under the Endangered Species Act with a “lanes or cranes” campaign that we have the Wildife Refuge at all. And because of the Refuge, the elusive Mississippi Sandhill Crane has survived–thank heavens this non-migratory beauty found habitat where it could recover and live.

Mississippi Sandhill Cranes

At our first stop in the Visitors Center, the volunteers handed over the keys to a fully enclosed bird blind two stories in the air. Inside, we closed the door and glanced through binoculars to a rehabilitation pen off in the wetland. Inside, we viewed three Mississippi Sandhill Cranes in various states of recovery, flapping their wings and looking generally healthy.

We took a quick spin around the nature trail at the Visitors Center. Not long, but along the bayou, through the uplands, and into the meadow, my heart started to burst. This is the ecosystem I have hiked the most in, and I love it with all my soul. As the long leaf pines jumped their Dr Seuss-inspired heads out of the wire grass, I rejoiced to find a healthy wetland managed by prescribed burns. The pitcher plants gave away the secrets of a well-maintained forest. It took me back.

A Hurricane, A Bayou, and A Small Group of Activists

Source: Pensacola News Journal, July 30, 1995, page 1.

To Pensacola, Florida. July 30, 1995. Hurricane Erin bared down on Pensacola, Florida, threatening it as a category 1 storm. My boyfriend of the time and I loaded up our meager possessions and evacuated to West Virginia (see my West Virginia post for the reasons why we went there.) On the way out of town, we picked up a copy of the Pensacola News Journal.


Although the paper warned of the coming devastation, the most outrageous announcement that day came from developers who planned to develop the last remaining pristine bayou in Florida, Tarkiln Bayou. I was devastated. The paper presented the development as the best idea ever with a small call-out to the Audubon Society for its opposition.

Tarkiln Bayou is a special place. Off the white sands of Pensacola near Big Lagoon and nearby the NAS Pensacola sat the most beautiful, pristine place to get away, watch great blue herons, think about the world, and relax. A healthy ecosystem of white-topped pitcher plants danced on the marshy grasses along the shoreline of a bayou that had no boats, no personal vehicles, and nary a kayak. It was a pristine place that more animals, birds, and gators knew than people. It was my favorite place in the Gulf Coast to hike, getaway and express gratitude.


When we returned to devastated Pensacola a week later, a three-day series about the development, called Laguna, had appeared in the paper. It waxed on and on how the developers were going to build a high rise resort that would bring Jobs, Jobs, Jobs!!! In the series, I found out that another person in town felt the same way. Kevin Davis was fired up. He had grown up on the bayou fishing with his dad. He wasn’t going to let those developers turn Tarkiln into the Laguna resort. He couldn’t stand it either, according to the article.

We reached out. Kevin, a local man who had never fought any environmental battle, was fired up. So was his wife Patty. Another friend of ours, Bryon and his wife, June, were fired up too. A local architect, Jim, also didn’t like they way the Laguna story was playing out. Together, the 7 of us organized and called ourselves Citizens Against Laguna. We had no idea what we were up against.

Joe Scarborough Is In on the Plan

The Laguna developers were a fierce bunch. They were the good-old-boys of Pensacola. Their pockets and networks were deep. They knew every lawyer and banker in town, and they underwrote the campaign of Joe Scarborough. Yes, that Joe. Of Morning Joe, Joe. At the time, he was a young, newly elected congressman from the panhandle, and he loved those developers. If you see Joe, say hi from the Citizens Against Laguna gang :-).

We had  no idea  how to mount an environmental fight. Seven environmentalists started off as strangers and ended up as combat buddies. We called a meeting for a week later. In the short term, we started to research. We seriously had no idea what we were doing, but we all knew that Tarkiln Bayou needed to be saved.

Source: Pensacola News Journal, September 7, 1995, page 1

At our first meeting, 45 folks showed up. At the next meeting, we packed the house. Over 200 people, most from the west side of Pensacola, crammed into the local high school’s cafeteria. Among us, we had some presentation skills and the ability to show some pictures and graphs. It was enough to get folks to sign up and write letters.

But that wasn’t enough.


Then in the middle of the night, our phone rang. A man with a scratchy voice who didn’t identify himself said in once sentence, “If you want to save Tarkiln, look at the Defense Authorization Bill.”

Huh?

We had no idea what this meant. There was no google then. But we knew it meant something. We went to the library, armed with this info, and the wonderful library turned us onto the public records of congress and we learned about this bill. Deep in its 2000 pages was a simple sentence. That sentence defined a land swap where the developers would get the bayou and the Navy would get some upland lands. It was a sweetheart deal where the developers would get “worthless swamp” and the Navy would get dry land.

We called Joe. He defended how great the Jobs Jobs Jobs would be for little ol’ Pensacola’s economy.

Guerrilla Advocacy Buys a Bumper Sticker

A friend had a printing company, and he offered to print some bumper stickers for us. We created “Laguna-gate” bumper stickers, and in dark of night we plastered them all over the signs, doors, and parking lots of the developers and their friends.

The news picked it up. We got interviewed on the local conservative radio. Pretty soon, folks started listening to our story. Soon, another mysterious call from an “admiral in the Navy” turned us onto a backstory. Contrary to what the newspaper and editorial teams had been saying, although the Naval Aviation Museum was for the project, the Navy was not. We quickly found out that if a high rise went on Tarkiln Bayou, it would jeopardize the air space crucial to the Navy’s pilot training mission.


Now our argument turned from “save the pitcher plants” to “save the Navy!” The local paper stopped being pro-Laguna and started listening to the story.

Tom, my boyfriend, and I got it in our heads we had to go to Washington. So off we went. We had no idea what we’d do or how to lobby our representatives, but we figured we’d figure it out when we got there.

Locals Go to Lobby

We found out that John Glenn and John McCain were both on the committees who reviewed and voted on the Defense Authorization Bill. So we stopped in their offices.

Let me set the stage: Tom and I are in shorts and Birkenstocks. We have some pictures of the bayou. We have an unnamed admiral telling us we need to save the Navy. We have a conviction we are doing the right thing. We have no idea what we are doing.

The interns came out of their offices and listened. Soon, the staffers came. Soon, we were being escorted from McCain’s office to Glenn’s. Senator Glenn came out of his office. We told our story. We showed our pictures. We asked about the sentence in the Defense Authorization Bill.

Photo credit: NASA.gov

He shook our hands. He told us to never underestimate the power of a few good folks to change the world. He then told us he’d just gotten off the phone with Senator McCain. They had killed the sentence. We had saved the bayou. Congrats! He signed a picture and handed it to us.

We had won.

The Fight Only Truly Begins

But that was just the beginning of the fight. Although we had stopped Laguna, we hadn’t saved Tarkiln Bayou. An election was coming up, and by the grace of luck and hard work, we were able to get an initiative on the 1996 ballot. Our goal was to raise property taxes by 1/4% to get money to match state funds to buy the acreage. Again, we had no idea what we were doing. In retrospect, we had approached funds all wrong. But a friend of the architect owned a billboard company. He plastered images of the gorgeous bayou with a phrase “for our children’s children.”

The votes came in. It was a long night of Perot-Dole-Clinton. We lost the vote by a measly 1%.

Source: Pensacola News Journal, Nov 7, 1996, page 4c

The good news is, it was enough for the state of Florida and its Preservation Funds (P2000) to get attention. The local Florida delegation also noticed. We visited Tallahassee. We told our story. In a time of eminent domain backlash and conservative protectionism, we had a tough sell. But there’s one thing that folks in the panhandle of Pensacola love, and that’s their open space. Be it for hunting, fishing, or just relaxing, everyone wants more of it.

A State Park Is Created!

Photo credit: Florida State Parks

And thus, the state declared it would set aside P2000 funds and buy the acreage that would make the Perdido Pitcher Plant Prairie Preserve,  now called Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park.

We really had won. We had started off as a rag-tag bunch of strangers. We ended as a victorious group of friends who beat the odds. It took almost five years for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Sadly, I missed it. I was in West Palm Beach counting hanging chads. But that’s a different story for a different day.

Ah, the Pitcher Plant

Thus, I found myself bending over a yellow-topped pitcher plant in the Sandhill Crane Wildlife Refuge thinking of wonderful friends doing a crazy time in a galaxy far, far away. I made a promise to get to Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park on my next trip to Pensacola, not only to thank Glenn and McCain, but to hug up some old friends and fabulous memories.

Off to our Third Hike of the Day

Just south of the Visitors Center in Gautier, we wanted to hike the new section on the longer Fontainbleu trail in a subsection of the Refuge. We pointed the GPS though Gautier to the trailhead and meandered a similar path to the Visitor Center’s trail. Through swamps and wetlands, near pitcher plants, and under longleaf pine, I started to think of another person.

In the heyday of our Laguna battle, I had attended the Great Gulf Coast Arts Festival in Pensacola. There, a passionate artist by the name off Steve Shepard, sold me my favorite piece of artwork. A 3×5 foot piece of colored pencil on construction paper of a long leaf pine forest with pitcher plants in right reds, oranges, blues, and greens still hangs prominently in my home in Denver. I often look at it and recall my favorite ecosystem and my favorite environmental win.

Hello Steve Shepard, Favorite Artist

I recalled that he lives in Ocean Springs, MS, right next door.

So I goggled him. An address showed up, and I convinced my husband we needed to stop in. Assuming we’d found his studio, I was excited to see his new work.

We drove to the address. Sandwiched between new Mississippi cottages, we found a small wooden cottage from the early 1900s. A Nissan Leaf sat in front, and a lady was getting her mail. We pulled up. I asked if it was Steve’s house.

Yes!

Mrs Shepard invited us in! Steve greeted us on the porch.

I told the above story.

He invited us into his studio, nee house. We got a sneak peek at his new work. I got to hug him! I was giddy beyond myself and felt like an absolute dork. But the times were good. The Shepards were kind. I tried to convince him to come to Denver to show his work at the Cherry Creeks Arts Festival. We took the picture, above.

The Day Comes to An End

And then we left…to shuffle off to New Orleans to do our Louisiana hike the next day. My goodness, what a day. Thank you Gulf Coast for a memorable day of old memories. I’ll be back.

What  You Need to Know about This Hike (Click for interactive map)