Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge expands 1,164 acres, protecting lilies, increasing access

Cahaba Lily
Cahaba Lily at the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge. (Pat Byington/The Bama Buzz)

On December 23, 2021, the US. Fish and Wildlife Service  officially completed the purchase of a 1,164-acre tract in Bibb County, Alabama adjacent to the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge. The acquisition expands the refuge by 31% to nearly 5000 acres.

The new addition will provide much needed public recreational access to the refuge and protect the iconic Cahaba lilies.

One Man’s Vision 

By all accounts, Jim Wadsworth, a conservationist and long-time Trustee of The Nature Conservancy in Alabama (TNC) is a patient person. You have to be when you are trying to save a special place.

Seven years ago, with the help of TNC, he purchased 1,164 acres of land adjacent to and within the boundaries of the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge. Why? For the sole purpose of transferring it to the federal government so it could be part of the refuge. 

You read that correctly. Wadsworth didn’t buy the property as an investment or for timber. He purchased the land with the intention to add it to the refuge.

“It means a lot to preserve lands and it means a lot to make the existing Wildlife Refuge better—improving it for the creatures and wildlife in the plant life there,” Wadsworth explained. “Plus, it’s open to the public.”

He also had the foresight to purchase an ecologically crucial tract.

“The piece of land that he bought is the upland part of the refuge that protects the watershed down to the Cahaba River where the lilies are,” described Mitch Reid, TNC’s Alabama Chapter Director. “It took well over seven years and an enormous amount of work to make it through the system that would allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to purchase the Wadsworth tract.”

Both Reid and Wadsworth credit Senator Richard Shelby for making sure there was funding in D.C. for the acquisition through the Land and Water Conservation Fund’s Recreational Access Fund.

Another Path to the Lilies and Grassroots Support

Cahaba Nwr
Wadsworth tract at the Cahaba NWR contains a small lake for recreation. {Jim Wadsworth}

The new addition will provide access to the Cahaba lilies and the Cahaba River, which is one the most biologically watersheds in the U.S.

“On the hilly side of the refuge, there was no access for people to get down to the river to see the lilies, so recreational access was a great vehicle for allowing the national refuge to pick up this piece of land,” added Reid. “But you really got to say thanks to Jim Wadsworth, because not only does this addition protect the watershed of the lilies, it’s also a great place to restore rare mountain longleaf pine. It’s a spectacular piece of land that took a lot of vision, patience and effort from Jim to make it happen.”

Rick Ingram, Project Leader of the National Wildlife Refuge Complex—which includes seven national wildlife refuges scattered in North and Central Alabama—told us the expansion also received a lot of grassroots support.

“Unfortunately, due to budget constraints, it took several years to get federal funding to purchase that property. But through the work of many partners—The Nature Conservancy, Cahaba Riverkeepers, Cahaba River Society, Friends the Cahaba River NWR, Alabama Audubon Society, and a very willing landowner—it made it through the federal process,” he said.

Beyond Man’s Ability to Create

Even though he had to hold on to the land for seven long years, Wadsworth humbly looks forward to seeing the land preserved for future generations to come.

“It took a team effort. We protected something that’s beyond man’s ability to create. If we can be a good steward of what we’ve been blessed with, that’s a really good thing to do.”

Excited about the 31% larger Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge? Tell us what you think  – tag us at @bhamnow

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Pat Byington
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