Many people don’t realize that Alabama has a wealth of forests, parks, woods and waterways, and it all belongs to them. Those public lands are there for all Alabamians to enjoy now and forever.
These public properties make up the Forever Wild Land Trust, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month. Since it was established by a vote of the people in 1992, Forever Wild has grown to 285,000 acres, encompassing 200 tracts of land in 31 Alabama counties.
“Alabama is blessed with such beautiful forests, waterways and other outdoor properties,” said Chris Blankenship, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and chairman of the Forever Wild Land Trust board of trustees. “These lands belong to me, you and everyone. They are set aside for the people of Alabama, and I hope they will get out and use their ‘Forever Wild’ property.”
Managed by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Forever Wild includes 350 miles of hiking trails, and has purchased additions to 10 state parks and 16 of wildlife management areas. Many of these state-owned lands provide a refuge for endangered and threatened species, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, Red Hills salamander, gopher tortoise and pigmy sunfish.
Additionally, the lands acquired by Forever Wild offer prime outdoor recreational opportunities for Alabamians who enjoy hunting, hiking, camping, birding, canoeing, fishing or simply having a picnic in one of the state parks.
“The Forever Wild lands help improve our quality of life in Alabama by providing opportunities for people to enjoy the woods, forests and waterways in our state,” Blankenship said. “The program also contributes to the protection and conservation of the many different species and other natural resources in Alabama.”
The people’s choice
Alabama Power was among many government and business leaders, conservation, environmental and citizen organizations, and sporting and recreational groups that were instrumental in the creation of the Forever Wild Land Trust. Willard Bowers, retired Alabama Power vice president of Environmental Affairs, had a seat at the table during some early discussions.
“Alabama Power acquired a tract of land in Jackson County back then as part of our efforts to develop a wildlife management program and entered into an agreement with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to manage it as a wildlife preserve,” Bowers said. “As part of those discussions, Jim Martin (then commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) got the idea of creating a state-owned land acquisition program, which became Forever Wild.”
During summer 1992, the Alabama Forever Wild Land Trust bill was introduced in the state Legislature. Alabama Power was “vocally supportive” of the legislation and assisted with moving it through the process that led to its successful passage, Bowers said.
The bill was ratified by 83% of voters during the electoral cycle on Nov. 3, 1992. It provided for the establishment, operation and funding of the Forever Wild Land Trust.
“It was gratifying to be a part of something that was a great benefit to so many people,” said Bowers, who served a six-year term on the Forever Wild Land Trust board beginning in 1994. “There were a lot of partners involved in developing the guidelines that govern Forever Wild, and I think that was the basis for the success of the program. It has not just benefited one group of people, but it has benefited the whole state. Working with Forever Wild was one of the bright spots in my job at Alabama Power.”
Alabama Power is still among the strongest supporters of the Forever Wild Land Trust, Susan Comensky said.
“We value our state’s natural resources and work hard to do everything possible to protect and preserve them,” said Comensky, Alabama Power vice president of Environmental Affairs. “That’s why we are proud to support Forever Wild and similar organizations that promote conservation and species protection in Alabama, and believe their work is not only good for the environment but the state as a whole.”
It takes a village
Many other organizations have a long legacy of partnering with Forever Wild throughout the years, including the Alabama Chapter of the Nature Conservancy and Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF). Both organizations helped head the public awareness campaign that led to the establishment of Forever Wild in 1992. Then, 20 years later, they stepped up again to play a key role in ensuring the passage of the legislation that resulted in the successful reauthorization of the program.
Through the years, the Nature Conservancy has helped identify and fund properties that could be acquired by Forever Wild, Steve Northcutt said.
“The conservation dollars Forever Wild receives from the interest earned through the Alabama Trust Fund ($15 million a year) is small compared to other states,” said Northcutt, director of Protection at the Alabama Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. “Forever Wild has done an incredible job of leveraging its funds, whether they come through federal grants, bargain sales or donations, allowing it to acquire 285,000 acres since 1992. We, at the Nature Conservancy, are proud to partner with Forever Wild in conserving the tremendous biodiversity of the state of Alabama.”
The AWF has been heavily engaged with the program and has had representation on the Forever Wild Land Trust board from the start, Tim Gothard said.
“We’ve been very honored to be part of Forever Wild,” said Gothard, AWF executive director. “It has allowed Alabama to secure for its citizens key properties with scenic beauty, abundant wildlife habitat, nature preserves and public hunting opportunities.”
“Most importantly, we’re proud that the Forever Wild program was developed by Alabama people. It was approved by Alabama people, and the decisions about the purchase of properties are made by people in the state of Alabama,” he said.
Old and new land acquisitions
Forever wild properties feature an array of natural elements, including its first acquisition – 209 acres of mountainous bald eagle habitat adjacent to Lake Guntersville State Park in Marshall County. Most recently, the organization purchased 1,300 acres of land in Monroe County that is habitat for the Red Hill salamander and nearly 1,700 acres adjoining Oak Mountain State Park.
Forever Wild is improving and updating the amenities on its properties, such as adding bathrooms at trailheads, expanding parking and installing wayfinding signage.
Blankenship said any person, organization or company can nominate a piece of property for consideration.
“Forever Wild is a grassroots effort in which citizens and companies have a voice in choosing the tracts of land that are included,” he said. “After it is nominated, the board of trustees evaluates the property, scores its conservation attributes and, if it scores high enough, votes on acquiring it.”
For more information about Alabama’s “wild lands” or to nominate a piece of property, click here.
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)