The threatened spring pygmy sunfish and endangered slender campeloma snail are expected to benefit from the city of Huntsville's donation of 700 acres near Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA in Limestone County to the Land Trust of North Alabama.

The donation — which arose out of an agreement resolving a threatened environmental lawsuit — means about 1,200 acres in the area will be protected, with restrictions placed on how the property is used.

The donated property includes Beaverdam Swamp, on the north end of the site; Beaverdam Creek; Moore Branch, a tributary that feeds into Beaverdam Creek; and Ragland Spring and Moss Spring, both natural springs that feed into Beaverdam Creek, said Marie Bostick, the Land Trust’s executive director.

The property is located to the east and northeast of Mazda Toyota’s $1.6 billion plant being built in Huntsville-annexed Limestone County and expected to start production next year. It’s also adjacent to about 500 acres of property purchased last year by Forever Wild Land Trust, which is administered by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. That property takes in Beaverdam Spring and most of its recharge area, officials said.

Protecting these features is “an incredible conservation success story,” Bostick said. She said the Land Trust of North Alabama will prepare a detailed management plan for the property — with input from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and a scientific committee made up of experts with scientific, technical or regulatory expertise — “for the purpose of enhancing the habitat of (the two species) and increasing the viability of the spring pygmy sunfish.”

Several restrictions are placed on the use of the property, including no use of heavy equipment in or around the wetlands and waterways, no use of pesticides or herbicides and no agricultural or extraction uses.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said that the city since 2008 has identified the area, through its western lands master planning process, as “an area of sensitive concern and needed protection."

“Throughout our land planning efforts, the City of Huntsville has been proactive in habitat preservation,” he said last week in a release. “The donation of these 700 acres is a continued commitment by the City of Huntsville in habitat preservation.”

For more than 10 years, the Land Trust of North Alabama has been the cooperating partner with the city, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and property owners along the creek, gathering information about the sunfish and its habitat, Bostick said.

Two environmental groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and Tennessee Riverkeeper, had threatened to sue Mazda Toyota in an effort to protect the sunfish and its habitat.

A staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity said this latest conservation effort fulfills Mazda Toyota’s agreement in late 2018 with the center and Tennessee Riverkeeper to protect at least 1,100 acres of the Beaverdam Spring and Creek complex, one of only two locations where the sunfish lives.

“We’re really happy (this area) is protected,” said Elise Bennett, with the Center for Biological Diversity. “(The effort) protects Beaverdam Spring and Creek all the way to Old Highway 20. It also protects the wetlands around Beaverdam Spring.”

In its 2018 agreement with the environmental groups, Mazda Toyota also committed $6 million to protect the sunfish and its habitat, including $2 million to support habitat restoration and monitoring projects in the Beaverdam Spring and Creek watershed and $4 million to a restricted endowment that will provide permanent funding for future conservation projects to benefit the sunfish.

“We appreciate the importance our community places on preserving the environment and the interest our community takes in enjoying the outdoors," said Mark Brazeal, Mazda Toyota’s vice president of administration, in the release. "The Land Trust of North Alabama plays a vital role entrusting those values and we look forward to seeing them expand the work they do to protect the Beaverdam Spring Complex’s natural resources.”

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