'Bama's Forever' Wild Land Trust Program
Those who have been to a football game at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa or Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn this year should have experienced a new method of increasing awareness of the Forever Wild Land Trust program, which takes oil and gas royalty funds and purchases land for public use.
During the effort to get Forever Wild reauthorized through the Alabama Legislature, it became apparent to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources that a new approach was needed to further educate the general public.
And what could be a better venue to tell the Forever Wild story than in stadiums in a state filled with fanatical football devotees.
Greg Lein of the ADCNR's State Lands Division, which oversees the Forever Wild program, said the campaign, which includes the stadium advertising and billboards along the routes to the stadiums, has paid off.
"Everything we've heard has been very positive," Lein said. "A lot of people have called and said they really didn’t expect to see that. They had never seen any marketing or advertising like that for the Conservation Department or any of the department's programs. Everyone has been really excited about it. Everyone driving to the games saw the billboards. People at the games saw the ads. Everybody thought it was great. So we feel really good about that now. This marketing will run through the season."
At the recent Forever Wild Board meeting at Five Rivers - Alabama’s Delta Resource Center, Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr. asked the board to allow the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the State Lands Division to take steps necessary to increase public awareness of the Forever Wild Program and access to the Forever Wild lands. The board concurred with unanimous approval.
"It's important to let the public know what's out there, for them to utilize public lands for hunting and recreation like biking, hiking and other public enjoyment," Guy said.
The current Forever Wild program is entering its last year of funding on Oct. 1. The new fiscal year gives the program's board budget authority of $12.5 million dollars. The budget is satisfied with funds that come in on a monthly basis.
At the recent meeting in Baldwin County, the board made motions to make offers and pursue the purchase of three properties, the Coon Gulf-Blue Hole property in Jackson County, the Perdido River-Swift property in Baldwin County and the Weogufka State Forest addition in Coosa County.
“The Coon Gulf land formation is a cove on the Tennessee River,” Lein said. “Dry Creek and Coon Creek are the two big tributaries in the watershed that flow into this cove and then feed into the Tennessee River. In that part of the Cumberland Plateau, they use the word ‘gulf’ for these big coves. From what I can tell, that terminology is somewhat restricted to the Appalachians and Cumberland Plateau.
"Once you get to the shoreline, the terrain jumps up with a bluff formation on the rim of the plateau and wraps around the whole Coon Gulf formation."
Lein said the Tennessee Valley Authority owns a great deal of property south of the Gulf, while Forever Wild and the State Lands Division has secured blocks of 650 and 3,200 acres. The Blue Hole addition would join the previously purchased land.
"The Blue Hole addition has a spring site and bat cave nearby," he said. "It's a very pretty area with a lot of hardwoods and big creeks and rocky boulders and bluffs. All of that state land is being rolled in with the Raccoon Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Once it is purchased it will become part of that public land hunting unit."
The Perdido-Swift addition is a privately owned tract in the middle of the current Perdido WMA. The 160-acre tract is longleaf-pine, sand-hill habitat in the middle of the 17,177-acre WMA.
"It's just good wildlife habitat for all those sand-hill critters," Lein said. "This tract picks up a block in middle of that WMA that supports that corridor concept that creates a corridor and enables big mammals like black bears to move from the Florida Panhandle to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta or even into Mississippi. The Perdido property is a big block of land that supports that concept."
The Weogufka tract is a 762-acre addition to State Forest in Coosa County that is mainly mountain longleaf habitat that is part of the Weogufka Creek drainage system.
"It has almost gorge-like features where the terrain is pretty dramatic," Lein said. "That's just north of the Coosa WMA, a couple miles as the crow flies. There is a long-running interest of having public corridor to support the Pinhoti Trail, which is a hiking trail that is Alabama’s segment that connects with the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. A lot of people consider Flagg Mountain as the terminus of the Appalachians, the highest and last mountain in the Appalachian chain."
Lein said there are several tracts of land previously approved for purchase that should close in the next few months. In Baldwin County, the Weeks Bay-Meadows addition of 685 acres and the Weeks Bay Reserve-Metcalf addition of 29 acres should close by the end of the year. The Heron Bay-Portersville Bay complex of 1,100 acres in Mobile County is expected to close this fall, as is the 2,100-acre Post Oak Flat-Patrick addition in Jackson County.
Lein said one aspect of Forever Wild that is often overlooked is the contribution the program has made to ensure Alabamians have public land to pursue outdoors opportunities on the state's WMA properties.
"What people don't realize is that Forever Wild owns more land in the WMA system than Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries," he said. "That’s just an example of how important Forever Wild is and how much it is relied upon for public access."
Lein said during the effort to get Forever Wild reauthorized through the Alabama Legislature, an important point emerged about the role Forever Wild plays in maintaining public access to hunting lands. Alabama currently ranks last in the South in the amount of public land available to hunters.
"During the 19 years Forever Wild has been in effect, the WMA system has lost a lot of these no-cost lease properties," he said. "During that period, the WMA system lost close to 140,000 acres. Forever Wild, during that same time period, added 193,000 acres to the WMA system.
"We were hearing during the legislative session that we had already purchased almost 200,000 acres, how much was enough. But the Commissioner explained to the legislators about the losses and how the WMA system had really only added 60,000 acres. That's a really alarming statistic. The Commissioner said that every time he tells this story, it turns people's heads. That's a story that needs to be told more often."