In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill devastated the Gulf Coast. In Alabama, beaches were closed, and the economic impacts were long-lasting. At 6,150 acres, Gulf State Park is the largest preserved open space on the Gulf of Mexico. The park serves as Alabama’s front porch on the Gulf, drawing visitors from the state and beyond. Its popularity as a tourist destination generates park revenue that supports the rest of the Alabama State Park system. Sasaki's Master Plan builds on the park’s unique assets to transform it into an international model of environmental and economic sustainability.
The Master Plan is rooted in five key elements – enhancing the visitor experience, restoring the dunes, building an interpretive center, establishing a learning campus, and rebuilding a Gulf State Park lodge, which was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. The park’s 600,000 annual visitors will enjoy a vastly improved experience with nearly 10 miles of new walking, cycling, or running trails; approximately 3.5 miles of enhancements to existing park trails; and better connections throughout the park to reduce the need for vehicular transportation.
The Gulf State Park dune restoration utilizes innovative techniques and native plantings (without trucking in more sand) to restore the equivalent of more than 50 football fields of dunes, which protect us from storms and provide animal habitats. Additionally, the plan calls for restoration of the natural habitat for wildlife, including the federally endangered Alabama beach mice, nesting sea turtles, and shore birds. By strategically cutting breaches into a constructed berm, and supporting them with native plantings, sand fencing, and invasive species removal, sand will flow more freely into secondary and tertiary dunes. The first breaches have been cut, beginning the process of dune restoration. Results will be monitored into the future.
A new learning campus for the Park will provide a variety of educational and research programs. Additional lodging options will create flexibility for student groups, researchers, and park visitors, and a dining facility will serve all communities and park visitors. The learning campus will be located near the current park headquarters to encourage educational and programmatic connections with regional communities and schools. A new interpretive center will feature indoor and outdoor interactive exhibits, meeting space and educational environments. This “living building” will be overtly educational in its construction. Both of these projects are also underway.
New development defined by the Master Plan is concentrated within already disturbed areas, preserving core habitat in the park’s natural areas. At the same time, any future development will model green building practices that are friendly, and even beneficial, to the park’s environment. Taken together, these projects create an economically sustainable park, ensuring sufficient funding for landscape maintenance and restoration, as well as fiscal support for conservation across the State Park system.