11 months ago

Awesome Trail opens at Joe Wheeler State Park

Those who love to explore nature have another opportunity with the opening of the new trail at Joe Wheeler State Park in northwest Alabama. The name of the new 8-mile pathway is the Awesome Trail, literally.

Ken Thomas, Alabama State Parks Trails Coordinator, said naming the trail resulted from a conversation he had with Chad Davis, State Parks’ Northwest District Supervisor.

“I told Chad this trail is going to be awesome,” Thomas said, “and it stuck.”

Thomas said the Awesome Trail was constructed through a Recreational Trails Program (RTP) grant with accessibility for a variety of users in mind.

“We tried to create a trail that could be used by walkers, hikers, mountain bikers and trail runners,” Thomas said. “The biggest consideration for making it compatible for everybody is that it had to be wide enough to support all of those folks. These type trails are wider than most trails people are used to. This allows people to walk side by side, and it has enough room that a biker or jogger could still pass.”

Before he became the trails coordinator, Thomas spent most of his time as superintendent at DeSoto State Park, which has some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the state as well as numerous elevation changes. He didn’t expect what he found when he went to Joe Wheeler to establish the new trail.

“The terrain was very surprising,” he said. “It’s a whole lot steeper than people realize. Joe Wheeler had minimal trails. When I started tracking it and figuring out where we were going to put the trail, we ran across several challenges. The terrain going into the Tennessee River and First Creek is a lot steeper than we realized. We had to do a lot of bench cutting, kind of carve the trail out of the terrain to create a level trail bed. We dealt with some wet areas where we had to pick the best route to maintain the environment. We also found a tremendous number of ravines.”

Thomas said sometimes the water flow in those ravines is seasonal and can be easily forded. Some of the other ravines had hard bottoms or could be manipulated to have hard bottoms, while other ravines were as deep as 8 feet and couldn’t be forded.

“We wound up installing 16 bridges,” he said. “Seven of the bridges were 20 feet long and two were 30-foot bridges. That was a challenge. We were only able to keep three fords and still keep the environmental integrity of the stream.”

The trail at Joe Wheeler was finished in the middle of April after months of having to deal with the heavy rainfall that kept most of central and north Alabama waterlogged. The new Awesome Trail has received rave reviews since it opened.

“Rain was my biggest problem,” Thomas said. “When the ground is so wet, you’re doing more damage than good.”

Despite the obstacles, Thomas is pleased with the outcome.

“I think what makes this trail so special is that we went to great lengths to bring people to some of the most beautiful parts of the park that we could find,” he said. “Because of the terrain, I had to put in quite a few switchbacks. A lot of consideration went into this trail that I don’t think people realize. You can turn a hiker 90 degrees, but you can’t turn a mountain biker 90 degrees. There are elevation changes you have to consider for all these diverse user groups. You don’t just get your hatchet and start hacking out a trail. It’s purpose-built. The combination of all of the users we wanted to serve with this trail made it challenging to build a trail system that a beginner would use but an advanced person would be attracted to also. A happy medium is what we were looking for, and I think we achieved a trail that will make the beginner and more advanced people happy. Nothing about this project was impossible, but a tremendous amount of thought went into it.”

Thomas said the actual construction of trails has advanced dramatically in the past decade. In fact, he was able to become the first trail builder in the state to receive his HETAP (Highly Efficient Trail Assessment Process) certification.

He said the previous trail-construction guidelines fell under a program called UTAP (Universal Trail Assessment Process), which was developed more than 40 years ago.

“You had to have a minimum of two people and four people was a lot better,” Thomas said of the UTAP program. “We had analogue tapes, rolling wheels and analog grade devices. Somebody had a pencil and paper, writing this data down. After all that was done, somebody had to crunch those numbers and assess that trail to provide all the information on how long the trail is, what’s the elevation, what’s the elevation gain, what’s the average grade, what’s the crossflow. The data goes on and on and on. I chalk up HETAP as an example of American ingenuity. Somebody computerized it and received a patent. One person can take this HETAP machine and assess a trail. They push a button and all that information is presented in the form of a summary.”

Thomas said the HETAP summary allows the user to decide which trail is best for them.

“If I took Olympic track and field athletes and put them on a trail and asked them if the trail is hard or easy, then took people not in very good physical condition and put them on the same trail and asked if this is easy or hard, I’m going to get two different answers,” Thomas said. “Why should I tell somebody a trail is easy or hard when opinions vary. What sold me on HETAP was that I could provide the collected scientific data on this trail and let them decide if it’s easy or hard. The benefit is that I can present this information to somebody who has disability, and they can base their decision on what they can do or what they probably shouldn’t do. Information is king. This makes everybody a king. This makes us able to give them the information they need to make their own decisions on a particular trail.”

Thomas took advantage of attaining his HETAP instructor certification to train all the State Parks naturalists in how to use the $18,000 machines.

“The idea was the naturalists use the trails more than anybody,” he said. “They’re out doing their interpretation programs every day. Now they can assist me in trail assessments.”

After the assessments are done, a TAI (Trail Assessment Information) sign is erected to give the users the pertinent information about the trail.

Other projects Thomas has been involved with include trail work at Lake Guntersville State Park, Rickwood Caverns State Park and Lake Lurleen State Park.

Thomas said a mountain bike trail at Guntersville was improved and built around the golf course with 3/10ths of a mile of that trail constructed to be completely ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant.

“We did improvements to Mabry’s Overlook across from the pro shop at Guntersville,” Thomas said. “Someone in a wheelchair did not have the same opportunity as someone who did not need a wheelchair. We fixed that with improvements to the overlook for a beautiful view from the mountain onto Lake Guntersville.”

The Rickwood Caverns project took some creative thinking from Tim Haney, State Parks’ North Region Operations and Maintenance Supervisor.

“It’s the most unique project you will ever find on a trail,” Thomas said. “Rickwood needed work done on lighting. Incandescent lighting promotes growth that normally would not happen in caves. Tim said, ‘Isn’t Rickwood Caverns just an underground trail?’ We were able to get another RTP grant to fix the electrical, install LED lighting and do some education work.”

The education aspect concerned people with mobility issues who couldn’t get in and out of the caverns, which has a final staircase of 102 steps to exit the cave.

“We put heads together and came up with an idea with the new 360 (degrees) virtual reality technology. We bought a 360 camera and VR goggles to wear. If you have problems with the goggles, we got a curved-screen 4K television and the best computer we could find to play 4K video. So, if you twist your ankle and your school group goes to Rickwood, we can send you on a virtual tour. If Grandma or Grandpa are not up to the staircase, they can do a virtual tour. That project was so unique that we were featured at the Corps Network 2019 National Conference. We’re going to try to shoot 360 videos at all our parks and let people visit all of our state parks from one location. That’s coming.”

At Lake Lurleen State Park, the new McFarland Trail was made possible through a donation from the McFarland family to the Alabama State Parks Foundation.

“We organized trail volunteers,” Thomas said. “The Western Alabama Mountain Biking Association supports Lake Lurleen. That group went in and built a trail, and then 10 State Parks people came in and dressed up the trail, got the signage ready and had a big ribbon-cutting.”

Thomas said the RTP grants were administered by ADECA (Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs), which made the grants available through an 80-20 match, which meant State Parks had to provide 20 percent of the funding.

Thomas said, “That’s a deal nobody can refuse.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

1 hour ago

Alabama lineworker training programs graduate spring classes

Bishop StateLawson State and Jefferson State community colleges are investing in the future by offering technical training programs to prepare students for careers in the skilled trades.

Through this innovative partnership, students can learn the fundamentals of electricity as well as the math and science knowledge needed to work on power lines. In addition to classroom instruction, students receive hands-on practice in an outdoor learning laboratory, honing their new skills so they are job-ready upon graduation.

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This spring, 39 students successfully completed lineworker training programs in Birmingham and Mobile.

As part of its ongoing commitment to workforce development, Alabama Power Company partners with these colleges to offer lineworker training programs.

“We are excited to partner with these outstanding colleges and provide opportunities for Alabamians to train for great, safe careers as lineworkers,” said Jeff Peoples, Alabama Power executive vice president of Customer and Employee Services. “Helping ensure our state’s workforce is well-represented and prepared to succeed today and in the economy of the future is an important way we seek to elevate Alabama.”

Post-graduation response has been favorable from hiring companies.

“Alabama Power and other utility partners have been extremely impressed with the quality of hires from these programs,” said Tom McNeal, Alabama Power Workforce Development Program manager. “I encourage utility companies and contractors seeking quality candidates and students interested in applying for the programs to contact the school in their area.”

Potential students who want to apply or learn more about the program should contact:

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

5 hours ago

Smiths Station celebrates two decades through new city clock

This June, Smiths Station will mark 20 years of incorporation, and the city is planning to celebrate the past, present and future in the most momentous way. City officials led by Mayor F.L. “Bubba” Copeland unveiled a city clock that will honor history while looking to the future.

Nestled between Phenix City and Columbus, Georgia, Smiths Station is one of the three fastest-growing cities in Alabama, according to state officials. Incorporated in 2001, the Smiths Station community was founded in the early 1700s. It had an estimated population of 5,345 people in 2020.

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Copeland, the second mayor in city history, offered appreciation to the first administration in setting standards for Smiths Station’s successful 20-year history as a city.

“Thanks to the previous administration, former Mayor LaFaye Dellinger and the City Council that laid the groundwork, it was easy for us to build on that foundation, build the roof and with each passing administration, the building will get fancier and fancier,” he said.

Copeland went on to say, “the clock represents time set upon us and what we do in life.”

He said the city and community deserve the landmark and all that it signifies.

Melissa Gauntt, the daughter of Dellinger, expressed her gratitude to the foundation. She said of her mother’s work: “I know the time and commitment that she gave to the city in her 16 years as the mayor and even before becoming mayor in leading the efforts to incorporate the city. “It is truly befitting that this beautiful clock be representative of these deeds and is a striking addition to the front of City Hall.”

The clock is in downtown Smiths Station at 2336 Lee County Road 430. For more information about the city of Smiths Station, visit www.smithsstational.gov.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

7 hours ago

Hyundai lending cutting-edge hydrogen fuel cell SUV to Alabama State University

Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama (HMMA) will lend one of the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell sport utility vehicles, the Hyundai NEXO, to Alabama State University for an extended evaluation period.

Robert Burns, Hyundai’s vice president of Human Resources and Administration, made the announcement at a news conference April 6 joined by ASU President Quinton Ross in front of the ASU Lockhart Gym.

“This is truly a great time to be a Hornet as we celebrate the continuing partnership between Hyundai and Alabama State University,” Ross said. “Several weeks ago, Hyundai and ASU came together as the university hosted a COVID-19 vaccination clinic for the employees of Hyundai, and today we witness ASU partnering with Hyundai again as it loans us its high-technology vehicle, the NEXO, which will allow us to expose our STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students to this first-of-a-kind vehicle.”

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The Hyundai NEXO is the first hydrogen fuel cell SUV available for commercial sale in the world. It uses hydrogen to produce electricity for the vehicle’s electric power train and its only emission is water vapor. The Hyundai NEXO is available for sale only in California. Although the NEXO is not assembled at the Montgomery plant, HMMA has two Hyundai NEXOs that are part of a ride and drive program.

“The groundbreaking spirit behind the NEXO mirrors our own mission to be an innovative manufacturer of current and future mobility solutions,” Burns said. “The partnership between ASU and Hyundai began a few weeks ago with the COVID-19 vaccine clinic. The system ASU had in place was smooth, efficient and it worked well. Today, we extend that partnership with the evaluation of the Hyundai NEXO by the university. We are excited again to be working with Alabama State University.”

ASU hosted the first of two COVID-19 vaccination clinics for Hyundai employees March 26-27. ASU Health Center personnel will administer the vaccine’s second doses to them April 16-17.

“Our partnership between ASU and Hyundai has been smooth and wonderful,” said Dr. Joyce Loyd-Davis, senior director of ASU’s Health Services. “Today’s event and our April COVID-19 vaccine’s second-round injections to Hyundai’s employees is a great example of ASU and Hyundai’s relationship jelling and extending into the future.”

Montgomery County District Judge Tiffany McCord, an ASU trustee, thanked Hyundai for being a team partner with ASU. “This is yet another positive example of President Ross putting his vision of ‘CommUniversity’ into action, which is good for both Hyundai and ASU,” McCord said.

She was joined at the news conference podium by fellow trustee Delbert Madison. “Thanks to the Hyundai family, which is a major contributor to our community,” he said. “When Hyundai shows up, it shows out.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

8 hours ago

Auburn University’s Department of Animal Sciences partners with Winpak to extend shelf life of food

Auburn University’s College of Agriculture and its Department of Animal Sciences are teaming up with global packaging manufacturer and distributor Winpak to focus on research to extend the shelf life of meat and food products.

The food product packaging research began in October 2020.

“We are grateful and excited for the unique learning opportunities that will come from utilizing a collaborative partnership,” said associate professor Jason Sawyer. “Through this partnership, Winpak and Auburn University will aid their shelf life research through the placement of a VarioVac Rollstock Packaging Machine provided by Winpak.”

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Collaborating with Winpak and working with industry leaders will not only enhance and contribute to diverse research experiences within the graduate program, but will provide undergraduate students with real-world meat and food packaging involvement, Sawyer said.

“We anticipate this project will work as the foundation to a significant relationship with Winpak, as Auburn University works in tandem with company experts to produce cutting-edge protein packaging and shelf-life solutions,” he said.

The Auburn University meat science research team goal is to provide more product value and reduce markdowns and waste at the retail counter.

Research evaluating alternative packaging of protein products can provide greater knowledge about creating safer products for consumers as a result of less microbial growth.

“Winpak is excited to partner with Auburn University on this unique opportunity,” said Tom Bonner, protein market director at Winpak and an Auburn alumnus. “Developing packaging concepts is an area where Winpak feels Auburn’s Lambert-Powell Meat Laboratory can add valuable knowledge and insight.”

Leaders in the protein industry are looking for innovative and sustainable solutions to the ever-changing demand for new packaging concepts, Bonner said.

“As Winpak continues to develop sustainable packages for the protein market, we hope this partnership will attract these industry leaders to the Lambert-Powell Meat Laboratory to conduct packaging trials and ideation sessions,” he said.

The packaging equipment at Auburn will allow for student interactions with industry leaders. The goal will be to expose students early in their pursuit of career options and facilitate better-informed students entering the workforce. The protein industry will need strong, innovative leaders to develop creative ideas to keep up with the demand for meat proteins.

“Supporting our customers and upcoming food manufacturing leaders is something we take very seriously at Winpak,” Bonner said. “We anticipate that our new collaborative relationship with Auburn University will be the spark to many unique and interesting ideas for the protein industry.”

This story originally appeared on Auburn University’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

9 hours ago

Nearly $100 million targeted for wildlife injured by 2010 oil spill in Gulf of Mexico

The Deepwater Horizon Regionwide Trustee Implementation Group, which includes trustee representatives from four federal agencies and the five Gulf Coast states, is seeking public input on the first post-settlement draft restoration plan.

The regional approach exemplifies collaboration and coordination among the trustees by restoring living coastal and marine resources that migrate and live in wide geographic ranges, as well as linking projects across jurisdictions.

The plan proposes $99.6 million for 11 restoration projects across all five states bordering the Gulf of Mexico, and specific locations in Mexico and on the Atlantic coast of Florida. Comments will be accepted through May 6. The trustees are hosting two public webinars with open houses for questions and answers on April 15.

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The draft restoration plan evaluates projects that would help restore living coastal and marine resources injured by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill through a portfolio of 11 projects:

  • Four projects ($18.6 million) to help restore sea turtles.
  • Three projects ($7.2 million) to help restore marine mammals.
  • One project ($35.8 million) to help restore and increase the resilience of oyster reefs.
  • Two projects ($31 million) to help restore birds.
  • One project ($7 million) to help restore both sea turtles and birds.

The public is encouraged to review and comment on the draft plan through May 6 by submitting comments online, by mail or during the virtual public meetings.

Information on how to submit your comments are at the latest Regionwide Restoration Area update.

During the April 15 virtual meetings, trustees will present the draft plan and take public comments. Register and learn more about the webinars and interactive open houses.

The draft plan and more information about projects, as well as fact sheets, are posted on the Gulf Spill Restoration website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)