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Mississippi Power employees instrumental in protecting river

Gulfport — The Wolf River is a beautiful waterway that runs approximately 66 miles through the pine belt of Southeast Mississippi to the Bay of St. Louis on the Coast. It’s a pristine, natural environment suitable for many recreational activities. Through organized efforts and protected easements along the route, this state treasure is being safeguarded.

One person who is passionate about protecting this river and took action to make it happen is Bob Fairbank, manager of governmental and environmental affairs for Mississippi Power Company. He was instrumental in organizing the Wolf River Conservation Society at the Pass Christian Library in 1997. He says the organization was an outgrowth of Mississippi Power’s Earth and Energy Group, a grass roots employee group who come together for shared environmental projects. They have worked with environmental issues for the Chunky, Okotoma and Wolf Rivers and represent all parts of the company.

The Earth and Energy Group is still together and covers Mississippi Power’s whole service territory. They participate in river cleanups, hazardous waste cleanups, work with schools for environmental education, put up bird boxes and work with other projects.

“The Wolf River Conservation Society came out of that group as a way we could become a role model with our rivers and tributary streams and provide an example of what can be accomplished,” Fairbank said. “We facilitated it but interested citizens came together to form the society.”

Protection of the Wolf River began in earnest when International Paper Company donated approximately 1,000 acres for a conservation easement, 15 miles on both sides of the river. That means no development can take place for 300 feet from the vegetated edge of the waterway. Fairbank says this easement, from the Harrison County line to Cable Bridge Road in Pearl River County, helps keep the water clean. Most importantly, it means this area along the river will always be a wooded corridor.

The group has worked with other organizations and landowners to secure additional conservation easements that have included donations and bargain sales. “In general our progress has been fast paced because we worked with large landowners,” Fairbank said. “We must have clean rivers to have good fisheries and good water in the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf. We can not protect them unless we protect the rivers.”

He says the group has worked quietly and persistently toward this goal and is just now telling the whole story. The roster has grown to 200 members and is open to anyone who would like to join. Efforts will continue to secure easements and raise funds to purchase them.

Fairbank gives credit to numerous groups for their involvement in protecting the Wolf River. Those include DuPont’s DeLisle Plant that donated a significant amount of property at the mouth of the river, the Little Biloxi Wetlands Trust, the Secretary of State’s office and the state departments of Marine Resources, Environmental Quality and Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

One easement was named for Ed Blakeslee, Mississippi Power’s vice president of customer services and marketing. Blakeslee helped initiate the Earth and Energy Group.

“Ed Blakeslee personally led the effort to do a feasibility study to determine land issues, conservation alternatives and direction necessary for the company to help preservation efforts on the river,” Fairbank said.

Passage of the state Scenic Stewardship Streams program was a major accomplishment of the Wolf River Conservation Society. They provided support and the impetus for it. Fairbank notes that the late Sen. Clyde Woodfield of Gulfport and Judge Sandy Steckler of Biloxi were instrumental in the bill’s passage.

This Mississippi Power employee of 33 years continuously shifts the focus from his own efforts to those of others. Pressed, he comments on his own reasons for involvement. “We all grew up on rivers and enjoyed water experiences and being outdoors,” he said, “and want to give to our communities and the place we live. It’s a contribution we can make to protect natural, scenic rivers.”

Being an Eagle Scout was a big part of his outdoor activities growing up in Hattiesburg. He graduated from Mississippi State University and the University of Southern Mississippi. Bob Fairbank’s environmental efforts also include the Mississippi Wildlife Federation. He recently completed a term as president of the statewide organization that has more than 20,000 affiliated members.

“As an industry, we want to be a part of the solution. We can facilitate and get results for the environment,” he said. “We have employees who live and work here and enjoy the environment. Our efforts give back and support rivers and streams.”

It’s easy for Mississippi Power’s employees to get involved in environmental projects but all efforts are voluntary. Fairbank says these projects compete with all the other things employees do in their communities.

“It’s the right thing to do and is a win/win for businesses, economic development and the environment,” he said. “Our involvement enhances the quality of life and is a linkage to smart growth and eco-tourism that’s becoming a big part of the economy and a way of life. Our employees embrace it.”

The Wolf River Conservation Society is an example of what one dedicated group can do to make a difference. They are now conducting membership drives in the northern end of the watershed that includes Hancock, Pearl River and Lamar counties. Work is also underway to create a youth trail promoting safety and conservation.

“We want this program to be open and accessible to all youth,” Fairbank said. “We’re seeking other corporate sponsorships to allow disadvantaged youth to participate at no cost.”

He says the Wolf River remains a perfect stream for the public to enjoy and is ideal for amateur canoeing. It’s wide and shallow and any danger is rare. Canoe and kayak rentals are available.

Kurt Brautigam, spokesman for Mississippi Power, says the company, which serves 193,000 customers in 23 Southeast counties, has a responsibility to be involved in protecting the environment.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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