Eagle Scouts help build Baldwin County

By Allison Marlow
Special to Gulf Coast Media
Posted 10/10/23

There was a tree in the way.

It wouldn't take much to clear it out and move on.

But before that could be done, there were laws in the way.

As the resident of a city preserve the tree …

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Eagle Scouts help build Baldwin County


There was a tree in the way.

It wouldn't take much to clear it out and move on.

But before that could be done, there were laws in the way.

As the resident of a city preserve the tree had, well, rights. Preservation rules dictated that the tree could stand until disease or weather brought it down.
So Eagle Scout Gabriel Hunter had to find a way around.

His project sounded simple enough: to clear out the overgrown trail around Jackson's Oak in Village Point Park Preserve in Daphne.

To do so, Hunter had to raise more than $2,000 and convince a crew to work more than 300 volunteer hours to complete the backbreaking work of removing brush and laying gravel. He also had to work with public officials to navigate the often obstacle filled path that is local ordinance.

"I learned that, especially with a city project, there are a lot of speed bumps and hurdles. To get to the finished product sometimes takes longer than you think," said Hunter, a Fairhope High School senior. "We really just need to be patient with a project like this."

And that lesson, officials say, is the point.

For more than 100 years, Eagle Scouts and their projects have been a touchstone of goodwill in communities across the United States.

In recent years, Baldwin County has seen a flurry of Eagle Scouts build, organize and raise projects with ambition that rivals any civic or government organization.

In doing so, teenagers as young as 13 have had to navigate local laws, environmental mandates, fundraising quandaries, manpower issues and even a stubborn tree or two.

Their tenacity and dedication have resulted in community projects that have brought hikers deep into Baldwin County's scenic woodlands, developed swampy wetlands into an outdoor classroom and even helped restore water quality along Alabama's Gulf Coast.

The Eagle Scout rank is among the highest honor that a youth can achieve in the Boy Scouts of America program. Part of the requirement for earning the rank is to conduct a service project that will have long-lasting impact on the community and help the scout demonstrate their leadership skills as project manager.

Brandon Anderson, Boy Scouts of America Mobile Area Council district executive for Baldwin County, said generally the scope of the project depends on the ambition of the individual scout. Though in recent years many projects have moved beyond park benches to more intense, and expensive, goals.

"I think for many scouts, they want to pursue something that is close to home for them and that people they know will benefit from. They want to be able to do what they can to make their lives better and best serve them," Anderson said.

"Scouts have a long reputation of providing community service," Anderson said. "People recognize that when they see the uniform and they think, here's somebody who is committed to helping others and prepared to take action."

In the last five years in Baldwin County, that action has resulted in stunning transformations as scouts aiming to earn their Eagle rank went to work.

At Blakeley State Park, Eagle Scout Colin Boudreaux built a viewing deck with a bench to overlook Shay Branch on the Badon Plantation Trail.

Eagle Scout Parker Baas built a wooden bridge deep in the park's woods to help hikers safely cross slippery mud prone trails.

At Gulf State Park, Bennett Reetz built a 12-foot by 12-foot observation deck complete with spotting scope on the Eagle Loop Trail so visitors could get a closer look at the nearby nesting American Bald Eagles.

In the waters off Alabama, Eagle Scout John Shell deployed mini reefs he built using fluted polypropylene and PVC pipes to help filtrate water and attract fish to the area.

And in 1997, Eagle Scout Eric Winberg helped turn an empty field and wetlands behind Daphne Middle School into an outdoor classroom. The hefty project, which included visits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, kicked off a transformation of the 4-acre area that has been shaped and molded since then by eight Eagle Scouts, resulting in a stunning public space.

Over the years, the teens have added a 110-foot boardwalk into the wetlands, an expanded outdoor classroom with a 900-square-foot pavilion, a 100-foot-long pier into the pond and have planted over 900 native trees.

Daphne Mayor Robin LeJeune said the projects not only help the city by bringing in volunteers to do work that may otherwise have to wait until the city calendar, and budget, allow, but also engage young residents as part of the process of growing and improving their hometowns.

"The village park project was a project the city didn't have to do since Gabe was raising the money to pay for the walk and do the work," LeJeune said. "To take if off our hands is a huge benefit."

He added that the process of completing a project builds future residents. The mayor said when scouts present their projects to him and city council, often there are questions, which the scouts must go solve and then present to the council, just like a contractor.

"They have to look at how it affects the city and how it affects the area so it's a real good learning experience," LeJeune said. "They have a problem to solve. It's been a great experience for these young adults to do that."

He added that often the scouts implement projects that even trained city planners never thought to build.

Case in point, when the city of Daphne cut the ribbon on a new boat launch in April the grant-funded project included new parking, storm drainage, sidewalks, fencing, landscaping, shore stabilization and storm water infrastructure improvements.

Eagle Scout Quinn Hamm noticed what it didn't have: life jackets.

So, he developed a life jacket loaning program so that visitors who may not have enough devices could safely traverse Baldwin County's waters.

"That's what so unique about these projects," LeJeune said. "We put this huge investment into the boat launch to really make it pretty and have great parking and dredging but I don't think we would have ever thought about a life vest loaner program."

"Some things might not save the city money, but they do a huge service to the city," he said. "His life vest project has been hugely successful.

"We've been very fortunate to have so many choose Daphne for their Eagle Scout project," LeJeune said.

Once Hunter cleared his plan with Daphne City Council, secured funding, machinery, volunteers and found a way around the tree, it took just a matter of weeks to finish.

Now, visitors to Village Point Park Preserve in Daphne can walk the trail around Jackson's Oak, the same trail Hunter often walked as a child with his family.

It was a trail he loved and that he knew other children in his community would also love to walk.

The hundreds of hours of backbreaking work during the hottest summer on record are not just a singular achievement for the Daphne resident.

Next year he plans to join the National Guard and attend Mississippi State University. His goal is to join the ranks of the National Park Service.

There he knows trail clearing will be part of his daily routine, but so will search and rescue, serving as a paramedic and law enforcement.

"In the woods, you are everything," Hunter said. "This project helped open my eyes to understanding what goes into managing a project and understanding how the industry works."

When he finally stood before Daphne City Council with photos and reports in hands, and a finished project behind him, he said he was nervous.

"But I was also thinking about how excited I was to be able to work on this for the city," Hunter said.

The teen pinned on his Eagle Scout rank just three days before his 18th birthday, the cutoff for earning the accolade.

"It means a lot to me, not just as a scout doing a project but as a person in the community able to do something that gives back to my community," Hunter said.