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David Rainer: Conservation board celebrates successes, remembers those lost

The first 2024 meeting of the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board was a celebration of accomplishments and a remembrance of those no longer with the conservation community.

The celebration started with the recognition of two members of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division. Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship recognized the awards given to WFF Enforcement Section Chief Michael “Matt” Weathers and WFF Director Chuck Sykes during last weekend’s meeting at Auburn University.

Chief Weathers was recognized as the recipient of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Guy Bradley Award for his contributions to wildlife law enforcement. The award was established in 1988 to recognize the officers who have made outstanding lifetime contributions to wildlife enforcement, wildlife forensics and investigative techniques.

“In 1905, Guy Bradley, a Florida game warden, became the first wildlife enforcement officer killed while performing his duties to protect our nation’s wildlife,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “Law enforcement officers like Bradley are essential to virtually every aspect of wildlife conservation.”

Director Sykes presented the plaque to Chief Weathers and highlighted the significance of the award, saying, “It’s a big deal.”

“It’s an absolute honor to be recognized for this award,” Chief Weathers said. “I’ve been so fortunate to have had the finest men and women in conservation showing me the way and mentoring me throughout my career. To have had the opportunity to protect the natural resources of the state that is my home has made for a very rewarding career.

“Having the support of Commissioner Blankenship, Director Sykes and all our Conservation Enforcement Officers has made all the difference. We have so many new initiatives like public shooting range expansions and the continued modernization of our Law Enforcement program that are being used as the blueprint for other states. Having folks like this to work with makes success easy.”

Director Sykes recently received the National Wild Turkey Federation’s (NWTF) C.B. McLeod Distinguished Service Award, an award to recognize outstanding NWTF volunteers who have dedicated their lives to wildlife conservation and hunting heritage.

Chuck Sykes receives the C.B. McLeod Award from NWTF Co-CEOs Kurt Diroff, left, and Jason Burckhalter. (Billy Pope photo)

“That is one of the premier awards of the National Wild Turkey Federation, and we’re very proud of Chuck,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “Chuck is also President of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies this year. We appreciate his service to Alabama but also on a national level, bringing some of the successes we’ve had in Alabama and being able to share that work with other states to make a difference like it has in Alabama.”

Director Sykes said he was at the NWTF Awards Banquet when he realized the exclusiveness of the McLeod Award.

“I didn’t realize how big this was until I’m sitting at the table that night and looking at the list of people who had won the award,” Director Sykes said. “You had NWTF royalty on the list, like Dick Kirby, Tom Kelly and Dale Rohm. I don’t know that I deserve it, but I am very proud to have it and be considered in that group of people.”

Commissioner Blankenship also apprised the Board of the variety of projects under the ADCNR umbrella that are underway or scheduled to start soon.

“We are really blessed here in Alabama with our natural resources and great people,” he said. “I’m very grateful to be the Commissioner of Conservation and for the work this Board and our staff do to enhance and protect the resources of our state.”

Commissioner Blankenship then listed the ongoing and upcoming projects administered by ADCNR or the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and implemented by partner agencies, like the Mobile County Commission, The Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, and various coastal cities and towns.

“Many projects that have been in the engineering, design and permitting stage are now under construction,” he said. “It’s really a testament to the work of our staff, the people of Alabama, our partner agencies, and the Legislature to give us the ability to do good things.

“There are more than $1 billion in projects in Mobile and Baldwin Counties from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill funding sources that are completed, underway or approved. There will probably be another $500 million to $600 million in projects that will continue through 2031 when the last deposit is made from BP.”

Commissioner Blankenship cited the beach renourishment work that is happening from Gulf Shores through Gulf State Park to Orange Beach in Baldwin County and Dauphin Island in Mobile County.

Other projects are:

  • $26 million for Dauphin Island Causeway protection and habitat enhancement
  • $22 million for project in Theodore Industrial Canal and marsh habitat protection south of the entrance to the canal
  • $6 million for Bayfront Park renovations in Mobile County
  • $2 million for the Dauphin Island Ecotourism project


The Commissioner also highlighted the rebuilding of the cabins on Lake Shelby at Gulf State Park.

“Gulf State Park’s cabins, if you recall, were destroyed by Hurricane Sally,” he said. “Those 20 cabins have been rebuilt for about $9 million and reopened to the public on February 1. They are beautiful. They are first-class, and I think everyone will enjoy those cabins on Lake Shelby.

“Also, the Romar Beach parking and bathroom facility work has been completed. The Gulf State Park Pier damaged by Hurricane Sally is undergoing a $14 million rebuild.”

The Commissioner also praised the $19 million Bayou La Batre sewer outfall project that has been 10 years in the making.

“The project will move the outfall about four more miles offshore,” he said. “Where that is important to this Board is that it will help with the oyster industry both on public reefs and the oyster aquaculture industry by opening more areas as approved growing zones once that outfall is relocated.”

Commissioner Blankenship noted that Gov. Kay Ivey awarded more than the $67 million in GOMESA (Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act) funds last July for 26 projects in Mobile and Baldwin counties, and more will be announced this spring.

Boating access will be a priority for the Department, the Commissioner said, with more than $30 million dedicated for access in the next few years.

“I’m excited about that,” he said. “We have more navigable waterways in Alabama than any other state, and we are committed to providing access to our public. I appreciate the work done by our Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Section, our State Lands Division and Marine Resources Division as well as our State Parks, where we will have boating access on those properties around the state. As Tim Wood (Board member from Selma) said, the Selma Boat Ramp was built with multiple funding sources, and we were glad to be a partner in that. I would like to thank Deputy Commissioner (Ed) Poolos for bringing multiple agencies together to do that project. That is going to be a great asset for Selma to be able host fishing tournaments and bring needed revenue to the area.”

Commissioner Blankenship also pointed out the importance of shooting sports to the future of wildlife conservation.

“We are building a new world-class shooting range near Columbiana and expanding other shooting sports facilities over the next few years,” he said. “Just for interest to the Board, shooters who don’t necessarily hunt are the largest contributors to the Pittman-Robertson program. It is eye-opening that shooters pay the bulk of the excise tax on firearms and ammunition that helps us manage the wildlife in this state. We plan to do more to support them and continue to increase the revenue for that program. We feel like it’s a good investment for not only the shooters but the wildlife in our state.”

Meanwhile, Alabama State Parks is using the $80 million in bond money to do a variety of projects throughout the state.

“One of the largest projects will be the new Cheaha hotel and lodge,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “That will be a beautiful facility on the bluff. We are planning to use wood taken from ADCNR properties and milled here in Alabama. The trees will be harvested, and the areas will be replanted with longleaf pines. The new lodge will be strikingly beautiful and will be a great example of how to sustainably build with these natural materials.

“Lake Lurleen will have a total rebuild, and Gulf State Park will have a campground expansion on the old golf course property. Those three projects together will be in the $50 million range.”

Other State Parks projects include:

  • $12 million Oak Mountain campground renovations
  • $4 million Lake Guntersville golf course cart paths, pro shop and cabin renovations
  • DeSoto pool house and facilities renovations
  • $7.5 million Meaher campground expansion, new cabins and administration building
  • Monte Sano campground and cabins renovations
  • $11 million Wind Creek cabin construction and campground renovations
  • Joe Wheeler lodge and pool upgrades
  • Rickwood Caverns new pool renovations and new pool house
  • Lakepoint renovations at lodge and cabins


“The driving range at Oak Mountain is now lighted, which will produce income,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “This will capitalize on the use of that facility and get people out after dark when it’s a little cooler.”

Commissioner Blankenship said $2 million will be used at the Forever Wild M. Barnett Lawley Field Trial Area to build a meeting facility and pavilion, expand the barn and paddocks and build new bathrooms.

“These projects will support more than 35 dog trials and events held each year,” he said. “With these new facilities, we hope to be able to host more regional, national and international dog trials.”

Several important members of the outdoors community were also remembered at the Board meeting, including WFF Conservation Enforcement Captain Marisa Futral, former State Senator and Conservation Advisory Board member Jack Biddell, and James “Big Daddy” Lawler, a media personality and champion of Alabama’s outdoors, especially in the Black Belt region.  Former Conservation Advisory Board member Dr. Bob Shipp also passed earlier this year.

“We had a great loss in Marisa Futral,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “She is going to be very difficult to replace in the Department. We will miss her and her work ethic and what’s she’s done for shooting sports and hunter education. We also want to mention the passing of Senator Jack Biddle, a former member of the Conservation Advisory Board.

“Many of you know Big Daddy Lawler from Wilcox County, who promoted hunting and fishing in the Black Belt and got the word out across the state and country about what we have to offer. He will be missed.”


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