Connect to Your Coast, is the motto of the Alabama Coastal Foundation, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Mobile. It makes a coastal impact message throughout the state of Alabama and beyond. 

I enjoyed my recent visit with the AFC’s Executive Director, Mark Berte, and learned more about its 30-year history. “Our focus is to improve and protect Alabama's coastal environment through three major tenets; Cooperation, Education (K-12 and adult programs), and Participation.” 

As we get into our discussion, I am amazed at how the Alabama Coastal Foundation has educated locals and visitors about what they should be aware of to fully enjoy all of our beautiful coastlines... It has an extensive list of programs, services, and volunteer opportunities.

Let's start with safety. We all know riptides have taken too many lives and subsequently devastated too many family vacations. Over the past three decades, the Alabama Coastal Foundation has worked with local governments and tourism groups to help keep people safe, and the coastline clean. 

When the Cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach approved the local “Leave Only Footprints” campaign, ACF was at the table to help. If you booked a rental property or hotel room anytime over the past decade, you probably have seen their magnets on your refrigerator. Now that they lead the Share the Beach sea turtle conservation program, they have new magnets to help promote that program and teach people what they should do when nesting season begins each year in May. 

For those of you who like to learn online, ACF has an online education program free of charge on their website. “We call it Coastal IQ. It’s for everybody, but especially for visitors not familiar with riptides, heavy surf, jellyfish, or the many things that can ruin a nice vacation.”

The Alabama Coastal Foundation was the first to implement an oyster shell recycling program on the coast. They work with local restaurants to recycle shells which improves habitat and saves businesses money through the program. “We work closely with local businesses to help educate their employees and customers about our coastal environment,” he tells me.

“We also work with other nonprofits, government, public and private sector organizations regarding ways to educate the public about enjoying, protecting, and preserving our amazing Alabama coastline.” In fact, AFC works with over 30 groups throughout the year on a host of initiatives. “Anything that needs a push,” says Mark.

He is constantly on the go, visiting groups and promoting ways to be better stewards of the environment, especially those sensitive areas that intersect with people and wildlife. The aforementioned Share The Beach program focuses on the coexistence with nesting sea turtles, including special lights that won’t disturb and disorient them in the nesting season.

“Sea Turtles who are distracted by flashlights, and condo, hotel, and beach house lights, will not come to the beach to lay eggs, thus are taken out of the ecosystem. We helped write and implement a retrofit solution for residential lighting to avert this issue. Before the construction phase, we advise developers on what lighting works best. The special flashlights we use have a red beam that is safe to use and does not disturb the sea turtles' natural behaviors.

Ecotourism is a big industry and is growing rapidly. You may recall the underwater forest that was uncovered after Hurricane Ivan off the shores of Ft. Morgan. It has huge appeal to scuba divers from around the world and AFC has underwritten the lead organization to protect it. You can learn more about the underwater forest in a documentary by Ben Raines, which was released five years ago. It is an amazing story.

The history of the Alabama Coastal Foundation began in Fairhope 30 years ago in 1993. In 2009, it expanded its reach to both sides of Mobile Bay. In 2012, it became a statewide organization and includes the entire Alabama coastline. The key element of the organization is that 90% of the work is done by volunteers.

A native of Birmingham, Mark tells me that he and his family have been coming to the Alabama beaches since he was a child. “I remember being in Gulf Shores watching a thunderstorm offshore, and counting the seconds between a lightning strike and hearing the thunder to gauge the distance. I was fascinated by the natural wonder of it all.”

18 years ago, his wife, Leigh Ann, was offered a position at Springhill College as an English professor. “Once we moved to Mobile, I realized there were so many places we hadn’t explored along the coast, like the Mobile River Delta,” Mark tells me he was attracted to AFC through its former Executive Director and friend, Bethany Kraft. 

“She was moving on and encouraged me to apply for her position. I had nonprofit management and fundraising experience, but I didn’t have a science background”. Bethany told him to apply anyway, he had what the organization needed, which was a strong interest in the work they were doing and great rapport with people. “You can hire people with a science background.”

As a former Boy Scout, Mark remembers a saying he first heard as a boy at Camp Sumatanga, a Methodist Youth Camp; “Let no one say, and say to your shame, that this was a place of beauty before you came.” That stuck with him and is the mantra of the Alabama Coastal Foundation. AFC has only three full-time staff, and one part-time employee and works with 14 paid contractors, or Team Leaders, to carry out its mission.

AFC is 100% volunteer-driven including its Board of Directors and Advisory Council which is made up of civic and corporate leaders. “Every dollar generated by AFC generates two hours of volunteer service, and we have over 4000 volunteers working on behalf of projects and programs we support each year.”  In addition, the organization has over 10,000 people in its database. 

“The growth in the organization has translated into impact in the area,” says Mark. “Even the Snowbirds get in on the act.” Programs he mentions that are volunteer-driven include, clean-ups, tree or sea oat plantings, and the oyster shell recycling program, to name a few. 

AFC works closely with local schools to help educate students about the importance of their coastal surroundings and what they can do to get involved in its preservation. “A lot of young people have become involved and are growing up to become future leaders. That’s a very important aspect of our mission,” says Mark. 

This goes for adults too, as ACF blends educational seminars with fun events like its Good Life Bicycle rides, Cocktails for the Coast (after Election Day), and outreach events hosted by all of the craft breweries in the Scenic 98 Coastal area. Year-round community and fundraising events help keep volunteers involved in a fun way. 

Connect To Your Coast is another educational opportunity that reaches adults throughout the state. The final free event will be in Birmingham at Back Forty Brewing on Thursday, December 7th. “People in the area can drop by that day anytime between 4:00 and 8:00 pm to learn from our great staff members,” says Mark.  

The reach of the Alabama Coastal Foundation grows year by year. “We want to attract people who want to learn more about our coast and the special feelings it holds for all of us. The Alabama Coastal Foundation is a nice entry point to help others learn.” Mark continues, “While we have so many people with different perspectives, we still have people that come together to protect and preserve this place we love and enjoy so much.”

Thank you, Mark! With so many opportunities to get involved, the Alabama Coastal Foundation is a wonderful way to do your part. 

Dec 6, 2023
Water Side of Scenic 98

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