With spring officially less than two weeks away and temperatures already in the 70s, thousands of spring breakers are celebrating on the beaches of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama. This year, beachgoers will notice the new Leave Only Footprints Initiative in which all personal items must be removed from the beach an hour after sunset or they will be removed and disposed of by beach patrol personnel. There will be no way to recover your property the next day, so if you want to save it, don’t leave it.
Personal items include all tents, beach chairs, umbrellas, toys, coolers and anything else you may pack for a day at the beach. Any trash you may generate, including all snack wrappers, cigarette butts, sunscreen containers, cans and plastic bottles, should be taken with you for proper disposal or placed in the numerous waste and recycling containers on or near the beach.
The cities are also enforcing long-standing beach rules including the prohibition of no glass containers, no fires, no fireworks, no pets, no overnight camping and no vehicles. Metal shovels and excessive digging are forbidden and holes must be filled in before you leave the beach.
The Leave Only Footprints Initiative is not a new concept as it is based on “leave no trace” principles and many coastal communities have adopted similar policies in recent years. With over 5 million visitors coming to coastal Alabama each year (in addition to the local residents who also enjoy spending time relaxing at the water’s edge), the beaches had become unsafe and unsightly — littered with tents, chairs, umbrellas, toys, trash and other items. Many times it was impossible to tell whether the owners intended to come back and were attempting to “save” their spot on the beach to the exclusion of other beachgoers or whether the property had just been left behind.
All the “stuff” presented multiple safety hazards. Emergency responders had no clear pathway while trying to navigate their way down the beach in response to a call for help, delaying response times to those in need. Wind would pick up items (creating airborne missiles of heavier items) and carry them away. Items left too close to the water would be washed away by incoming waves, adding to the growing marine debris problem. Holes several feet deep and sometimes connected by sand “tunnels” (also a safety hazard due to the danger of the sand collapsing) posed a threat of severe injury to emergency personnel on vehicles trying to respond to a call, to people walking the beach at night, as well as to the sea turtles that nest on Alabama beaches.
The crowded beaches also left little space for the mama sea turtles, which are protected under federal law, to come ashore to nest. Frequently the turtles would abort their nesting attempt after bumping into things, occasionally becoming entangled or entrapped, and sometimes sustaining injury or death due to their misfortune. The hatchlings, much tinier than the mothers, face an even greater obstacle in getting to open water when they have to go over, through or around all these items.
Amid growing concerns last year as to the increasing amounts of items left behind, the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach began efforts to educate beachgoers as to best practices for keeping our beaches clean and safe for the enjoyment of all. Between March and July 2015, the City of Gulf Shores collected over 2600 cubic yards of debris, including 24,000 pounds of tent frames, umbrellas and chairs, with much of it being recycled.
The “Leave Only Footprints” Initiative has the widespread support of both cities, Gulf State Park, the Coastal Alabama Business Chamber, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, property management companies, residents and many other industry partners – all of whom are doing their part to help spread the message.
So that no one is surprised by the new policies, visitors will see the message in various formats, even before they arrive at the beach. A widespread effort includes information on vacation-planning websites, lodging reservation materials, social media, television and radio announcements, print advertisements, bumper stickers, pins worn by customer service personnel, individual business message boards and in many other places. As one last reminder, beachgoers will see a “Leave Only Footprints” sign at every boardwalk access to the beach and may even see a banner plane flyover.
For more information about the Initiative, including links to the official ordinances passed by the cities, please visit www.cleanisland.org and be sure to follow the campaign on Facebook. We hope to see you soon on our beaches, but please “Leave Only Footprints.”