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Spotlight: Yael Girard, Weeks Bay Foundation

MB talks coastal conservation and public awareness with the endlessly energetic director of the Weeks Bay Foundation.

ABOVE During a shoreline planting project with the Weeks Bay Reserve, Girard and a team of volunteers installed 2,500 black needle rush plants on the state-owned Swift Tract.
 

Conservation is often a tricky topic to discuss in a conservative state like Alabama, but Yael Girard, director of the Weeks Bay Foundation, says it matters to the people of Alabama — whether they realize it or not.

“Even if ‘conservation’ is a bad word to you, if you enjoy being outside ... then you are a conservationist,” Girard says. “Everyone in coastal Alabama lives here partly because of the incredible natural resources in the area.”

MB had the chance to catch up with Girard during her four-hour drive to a Forever Wild Land Trust Board Meeting, where she would advocate for the state agency to purchase a 100-acre piece of land on the Eastern Shore.

Girard, 34, moved to the Bay area in 2015 after spending several years working with land conservation organizations in Asheville, North Carolina. Her accomplishments there include developing and maintaining a multi-day paddle trail system along the French Broad River and securing grant funding for a farmer incubator program.

“When I moved to south Alabama, it was for personal reasons, so I didn’t have a job lined up,” Girard says. “Positions in the conservation community here are few and far between, so one of the only positions I found was an AmeriCorps VISTA position at the Weeks Bay Foundation.”

At the time, well-known environmental journalist Ben Raines served as director of the foundation. Raines decided to return to journalism not long after Girard was hired, and, less than a year later, the board of directors approved Girard as executive director.

“She gets the mission on every level,” says Ellis Allen, Weeks Bay Foundation board president. “She’s able to communicate our vision to children and turn around and give the complexities of how we are able to help acquire and maintain properties to potential donors. She’s not afraid to get her feet wet and her hands dirty, and, as such, is a great leader when it comes to motivating interns and volunteers.” Although the Weeks Bay Foundation was created in 1990 as a way to support the Weeks Bay Reserve, the organization became a land trust in 2009 and has since protected over 7,000 acres of wetlands in Mobile and Baldwin counties.

“We’ve continued to try to grow our presence on both sides of the Bay. We’re protecting land as far north as Bay Minette and as far west as Dauphin Island and Theodore, and people need to know that,” Girard says. “People don’t necessarily know who we are and what we do, and we want to change that.”

To achieve that goal, Girard says it’s essential for the Weeks Bay Foundation to be an active part of conservation community. For example, she and her team spearheaded a recycling initiative as part of the 2017 Coastal Cleanup, resulting in over 2,000 pounds of plastic recycling. The foundation is also partnering with Weeks Bay Reserve to pursue a grant that will enable the organizations to clean up sunken boats in the area as well as educate boat owners about the importance of preparing for hurricanes. In addition to being involved in collaborative conservation efforts, the public, Girard says, needs to be able to access and enjoy protected properties.

“Although the Weeks Bay Reserve has a visitor center and public trails, [Weeks Bay Foundation] doesn’t currently have any land open to the public, and that is unfortunate,” she says. “I feel strongly that people only protect something they understand, and they can only understand something they can experience. If they can’t enjoy our properties, there’s no motivation to protect them.”

In the past, Girard says, the foundation lacked the funding to open properties to the public. However, through several grants and matching funding, two properties — one in Baldwin County and one in Mobile County — are slated to be opened to the public. “We’ll be restoring habitats, installing walking trails and creating educational signage,” she says. “There will be lots of volunteer opportunities for both of these projects.”

“Yael is an incredible asset to coastal Alabama and is a fountain of knowledge committed to improving our community and our natural resources,” says Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper. “I love getting to work by her side.”

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