Travel & Tourism

Tireless director comes to end of 11-year quest for Pascagoula River Audubon Center

JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALDMark LaSalle, director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, sits on the back deck of the center's new location on Oct. 3.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALDMark LaSalle, director of the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, sits on the back deck of the center's new location on Oct. 3. SUN HERALD

MOSS POINT -- For 11 years he has worked toward building a Pascagoula River Audubon Center, and this week it opens for real.

The $2.3 million structure -- cypress, glass and light -- came in on budget and the center has 2½ years of operating expenses in the bank, with the help of community partners.

It's a reflection, in part, on Mark LaSalle, the tireless director who when interviewed last week was working with a manual post-hole digger to complete a handicap-access ramp to the boat launch. It was just 10 days before the grand opening.

But by doing the work himself, he expected to save as much as $18,000 over hiring a contractor. The ramp was a feature the architects overlooked.

"They won't be on my Christmas card list this year," LaSalle said, working through

another large root, hitting water and mud, wearing a hummingbird T-shirt.

Patience and persistence is his motto, whether it's putting together funding or getting past a root while digging in a swamp.

A fellow Rotarian, attorney Bill Reed, who has watched LaSalle for years, added "passionate" to the description.

Reed said he watched as the whole concept of an Audubon Center went from a freebie space in the corner of a building on Main Street to a free standing center.

The down side might be that he tackles the world, overly optimistic of what he and his small staff can accomplish, but so far the formula has worked.

A fellow staffer calls him an Energizer Bunny.

"Occasionally he gets stressed like anybody else, but he keeps on going."

The back story

The concept of a nature center in Moss Point appeared in a master plan adopted in the 1990s as part of a move to tie the city with the rivers that flow through it.

"It propelled us toward looking at the waterfront in a different way," said Linda Holden, who was the economic development director then. It included Pelican Landing and the popular river boardwalk that became realities years ago.

That's when the city started looking at nature tourism and began putting together a panel of knowledgeable people and organizations that included the Land Trust and the Nature Conservancy.

LaSalle's career dovetailed nicely with where Moss Point was headed.

He came to the Coast in 1990 through the Mississippi State Extension Service, as an area specialist on wetlands, and he worked with the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium doing coastal research.

After 14 years, he left to go with Moss Point. Hired under a state grant, his job was to look into establishing a nature center, possibly with Audubon.

In 2004, LaSalle joined Audubon and within 1 1/2 years, they were able to move from an Audubon coastal project office to Phase I of a Pascagoula River Audubon Center.

On Frank Griffin Road, on land owned by another nature organization, LaSalle and a staff or one or two instituted programs, began partnerships with industry -- Chevron's Pascagoula Refinery, Mississippi Power, Ingalls shipbuilding -- and began the chase to accomplish Phase II and build the center.

LaSalle is quick to point out the partnerships go beyond industry to include government, local businesses, universities, colleges, nonprofits and banks. It has always been pitched as economic development.

A cool story

It came together around a river with a distinction.

The history about preserving the Pascagoula River is a cool story, LaSalle said, and the river itself became a main attraction for Audubon.

It has 327 species of birds. And there's a Coastal Birding Trail that is now on line with interactive features.

The Nature Conservancy began its interest in conserving the river in 1974. By 1976 Mississippi passed a bond issue to acquire 35,000 acres from the organization to form the Pascagoula River Wildlife Management Area along the river corridor. Protection grew as tracts of land were added and conservancy partnerships formed to put together an extensive conservation corridor.

Then somewhere in the early 2000s they discovered a scientific paper that had done a thorough study of rivers in North America, said Becky Stowe with the Nature Conservancy on the Coast. Based on flow, the Pascagoula turned out to be the largest free flowing, undammed river in the lower 48 United States.

"It's not the longest and it's not the only," she said, "but by volume, it's the largest."

Then came the Emmy-winning documentary.

Mississippi ahead

Not every state has an Audubon Center, and Mississippi now has two. The Pascagoula River center joins one in Holly Springs.

Thirty-two states have offices, LaSalle said.

Putting together what Audubon requires is not an easy do. Even with $2.3 million raised for the building, Audubon required $850,000 in the bank to ensure operations for more that two years. Centers have to be able to stand alone. There's no bucket of money in New York to bail them out, he said.

"But we got the approval for this center in the middle of a national recession, 2011. Audubon was closing centers four or five years ago," LaSalle said. With the help of a local panel of business people, the Pascagoula Center had a solid business plan.

The building design came in over budget, so there were cuts. By 2013, it was under way.

What to expect

The center is nestled in the heart of Moss Point on acreage along Rhodes Bayou. Walking the grounds with LaSalle is like getting a short-course in nature, whether it is showing Moss Point students how to kill an invasive popcorn tree or explaining that the odd, gray and pink "hummingbird" in a neighbor's yard is really a huge Sphinx moth that flies similar to a hummingbird.

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Jackson County is raising the height of the Dantzler Street bridge to allow an Audubon vendor, McCoy's Swamp Tours, to access the river.

LaSalle and his crew will continue to put together programs like winter tree identification, what insects live in golden rod, frog and mammal classes, novice and expert birding classes, Master and Junior Naturalist courses, summer camp and how to maneuver the federally designated blueways.

That's just for starters. There's also the Backyard Birding Count program, protecting the least terns on Coast beaches, the Audubon Coastal Bird Survey, teaching cities how to be more bird friendly and the list goes on.