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Making Room for Displaced Wildlife Spells End for Mobile Delta Cabins : Environment: Federal government buys up leases, causing unhappiness among those who enjoy escaping to beauty of swampland.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

For adventurous seekers of solitude, like the Gary Guess family, Crab Creek is just a few oar strokes away from the cares and commotions of this coastal city. But it might as well be in another world.

No roads lead to Crab Creek. The only full-time residents of Crab Creek and similar other swampy backwaters of what is known as the Mobile Delta are creatures such as rats and alligators and black bears.

People, such as Gary and Irene Guess and their 3-year-old son, Christopher, are only visitors. From their home in Mobile they could reach the haunting beauty of the delta swampland in less than an hour. Let others flock to the nearby Gulf of Mexico beaches, the Guesses were happy with their Crab Creek retreat and figured they would enjoy it for a lifetime.

Then they heard the news.

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The Guesses and many of their neighbors were summoned earlier this year to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers meeting. There they learned that their backwater paradise would be purchased by the federal government and that, in effect, a way of life for some would end.

“We went to the meeting and they just told us, ‘This is the way it’s going to be. Bitch all you want. It’s not going to do any good,’ ” Guess says. He says his wife cried.

Over the years, the Guesses and other discoverers of the secrets of Crab Creek had built small cabins back there a few boards at a time, hauled in on their small fishing boats.

The Guesses gave up their cabin on Nov. 5. “We stayed until the last day,” Gary says.

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It did not ease the disappointment of Gary and Irene and the other Crab Creek cabin folk to learn that the government purchase was part of the largest wildlife mitigation project ever undertaken by the Corps.

“When it comes to government, you just roll over,” says Willard Thomley of Satsuma, a 54-year-old retiree from the International Paper Co. He traveled about 10 miles per trip by boat when he built his cabin in 1984. He thought about turning it into a houseboat, loading it on pontoons and saving it, but that was too expensive.

“They didn’t pay us near what we had in it, but that’s the way it goes.”

Thomley says he suffers from emphysema and couldn’t fight Uncle Sam.

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Glen Coffee, the Corps project manager for the land purchases, says the land buys will replace--"mitigate” in government language--wildlife habitat lost during construction of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a 234-mile Corps project that connected the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers.

Land eligible for mitigation purchase must be in the Tenn-Tom corridor. Mobile is at the southernmost tip of the waterway.

When construction of the Tenn-Tom began in 1972, environmentalists argued that the $2-billion project ruined the habitat of numerous game animals, including deer, turkey, squirrel, quail and rabbit, permanently flooding some 40,000 acres.

The mitigation purchases were authorized by Congress in 1986 and will result in the acquisition and management of 88,000 acres of land in Alabama and Mississippi. Once the purchasing ends in 1996, Coffee says, the land will be turned over to the states for management.

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The reason Guess, Thomley, and nearly 60 others lost their cabins is because they were located on leased land and they didn’t own their property.

“We only buy from willing sellers,” Coffee says.

In these cases, the biggest willing sellers were Scott Paper Co. and the Coastal Land Trust, a nonprofit conservation group.

Scott Paper was paid about $7.5 million for some 11,700 acres, including 9,500 acres in southeast Mississippi. The Mobile-based Coastal Land Trust was paid $2.4 million for about 4,183 acres, and businessman John J. Whitehead Jr. of Pascagoula, Miss. received $413,000 for 1,178 acres in the Pascagoula River delta, according to Corps records.

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So far, the Corps has spent $18.5 million on purchases. That total could reach $79 million by 1996, Coffee says.

Gary Brannan, another who enjoys a delta cabin, says he owns his piece of the swamp and refused to sell.

“I never understood why they went to all this trouble to buy them just to tear them down,” Brannan says.

The Corps manager said that if they had let one cabin stay on government property they would have to relent for all, and the federal government does not want to be in the cabin-leasing business. He also said hunting could be a safety threat until properly managed by the state.

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There are hundreds of these privately owned backwater cabins that date back half a century or more. Most are on property owned by people like Brannan who have refused to sell. But Brannan is now concerned that once the state takes over management of the wildlife area, he will be forced out by the state. Coffee discounts that threat. He says the federal government is providing Alabama and Mississippi with funds to manage the acres being purchased.

“Once in the management area, we will have to develop specific rules and regulations for that area,” says David Hayden of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in Montgomery. “I don’t know of any changes. We are planning to put an area biologist there, and that would be an additional employee we don’t now have.”


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