Some of the projects to enhance Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, using money from a multimillion-dollar federal grant, could get started next spring, said the project leader for the 35,000-acre refuge.
Wheeler was awarded a $5.443 million grant in summer 2018 as part of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s construction projects operating plan, according to U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, who announced the grant. Shelby is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations.
“(The projects) will add a lot of public use opportunities for residents and visitors,” said Ricky Ingram, project leader for the refuge. “The goal is to provide better access to public lands and increase visitation and tourism.”
The refuge has more than 650,000 visitors each year.
The grant money will be used for projects including:
• Upgrading the Visitors Center and its exhibits.
“We hope to replace 80 to 90% of the exhibits,” Ingram said, as well as upgrade the sound and video system, paint, and install new flooring. Depending on funding, plans are to extend the bookstore and gift shop area, he said.
• Painting and installing new siding on the existing observation blind building.
• Building a new photography blind to the west of the existing Visitors Center.
• Replacing the Beaver Dam boardwalk.
• Rehabbing the Flint Creek boardwalk and fishing pier.
• Installing two canoe/kayak launches.
Ingram said the two probable locations for the launches are near Mooresville and in the Dancy Bottoms area on Flint Creek.
“We’re hoping that by spring, we will have some of the projects started,” Ingram said.
Projects that would get underway first would be those that don’t require architectural review or permitting, like replacing or adding to existing structures, according to Ingram.
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce President John Seymour discussed refuge needs with Shelby about two years ago.
“People are looking for outdoor activities,” and these projects would greatly improve access to the refuge, Orr said.
The One Decatur plan, the result of more than a year’s work by city officials, a committee of 40 residents and consultants, among other recommendations, called for improving access to the refuge.
Ingram said if there’s enough money, he would like to add a restroom at Flint Creek and a 6-mile hiking and biking trail that starts near the Visitors Center and stretches to the south behind the center.
“We also hope to build an outdoor classroom outside the Visitors Center for schools and other groups,” Ingram said. “We’re working with design contractors now and we’ll know a lot more in about two to four months.”
Because of the number of Native American cultural sites on the refuge, significant archaeological review is required under federal laws, according to Ingram.
“Some projects are cleared but others will require additional field review by archaeologists and will take another eight to 12 months before final determinations can be made,” he said. “Once archaeological approvals are given, then the refuge must go to the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Corps of Engineers for permitting on some projects.”
A contractor was selected by the Fish and Wildlife Service contracting office about six months ago and the office has been negotiating on early bids, Ingram said. “This likely will take another six to eight months.”
Willie McCord, who spent the morning on Friday, his 77th birthday, fishing from the Flint Creek pier, would welcome the improvements. He’s already noticed enhancements since he’s been coming here, like the benches on the grounds near the pier.
McCord, a Decatur resident, tries to get to the pier a couple of times a week.
“Even if I don’t catch anything, it’s so relaxing, so quiet out here,” he said.