Miss. coast may get more natural spaces

Published 3:33 pm Wednesday, September 5, 2007

If Liz Smith-Incer has anything to say about it, South Mississippi will soon be adorned in virtual ribbons of green space and blue water.

The good news for residents? She does have something to say about it, and National Park Service officials will be listening.

She has been stationed on the coast since January and is situated alongside Gulf Islands National Seashore personnel in Ocean Springs. The park service employee is here to organize a growing number of trails, parks, rivers and bayous conservation projects. Eventually, they will be joined to create a protected network of natural areas meant for hiking, fishing, canoeing and conservation.

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“So far, there has been a lot of interest by communities for our help with these projects,” Smith-Incer said. “The competition is going to be pretty tight.”

Along with her superiors in Atlanta’s regional headquarters, she is now deciding which of the nine applications received from South Mississippi groups will be part of her program. Decisions will be made around Oct. 1, with projects expected to be complete within two years.

Among her applications, which she is reluctant to reveal until final decisions are made, are a nature trail and linear park that would connect St. Louis Bay and Gulfport, one that would connect Ocean Springs to Gautier and another that would create a recreation corridor in Pascagoula.

She works with a small group within the park service, called the Rivers and Trails Program, that helps communities meet their conservation and nature goals. The program provides leadership and assistance to state and local governments along with community groups to plan their projects. It does not provide money to build the projects.

“People usually think of big parks like Yellowstone when they think of the National Park Service, but we’re just a small group that helps communities accomplish their conservation goals,” Smith-Incer said.

As the program’s sole representative for the entire state, Smith-Incer is stretched to the limit, though she can call on the vast resources of the parks service whenever she needs.

The Rivers and Trails Program’s philosophy is to reconnect communities to their national parks, she said. If there are no national parks nearby, the program helps build local places where residents can reconnect to nature.

“We’re especially interested in creating connectivity between communities by creating those bike paths, greenways and river trails,” she said. “This renews a community’s spirit about what nature means to its residents. They can come and rejuvenate.”

Judy Steckler, director of Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain, said her organization is working on a project in Turkey Creek that will connect to the larger regional plan now being organized by Smith-Incer.

“I was very pleased to hear the park service opened an office down here. It’s a real asset,” Steckler said. “By taking advantage of all this beautiful area to bring in more tourists, these projects are as much an economic development tool as they are recreational and environmental.”