2 months ago

Interior Secretary Bernhardt promotes outdoors opportunities during Alabama tour

Opening America’s vast federal lands to outdoors recreational activity is the expressed goal of David Bernhardt, Secretary of the Department of the Interior, who visited Alabama’s Gulf Coast this week for a whirlwind tour.

Secretary Bernhardt heard a presentation about the mission and work of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) from Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship and followed with a tour of the Claude Peteet Mariculture Center in Gulf Shores. The Secretary then joined Alabama Congressman Bradley Byrne for a visit to the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge.

During his time in Gulf Shores, Secretary Bernhardt met with the different ADCNR Division Directors and Joey Dobbs, Alabama Conservation Advisory Board Chairman.

“I was on the Virginia Board of Fish and Game and I loved that experience,” Secretary Bernhardt said. “It’s democracy. It was the most satisfying public service experience of my life because of what you (fish and wildlife officials) do and to be able to look for practical solutions in wildlife management. We feel so strongly that states are where the leadership in wildlife is, and we’re doing everything we can to protect that. We have spent a lot of time in the last four years trying to make sure that line is clear. I just want you to know I have a special place in my heart for every wildlife and fisheries manager in the states.”

Commissioner Blankenship applauded Secretary Bernhardt and the Trump administration for expanding hunting and fishing opportunities on federal lands.

“We have a proposal to expand those opportunities on 2.3 million acres this year,” Secretary Bernhardt said. “On one hand, we’ve tried to expand access opportunities. On the other hand, we’ve really worked hard to line up our regulations with yours (the states). That’s a big priority. I think we have made 5,000 reg changes to make that alignment work, because you shouldn’t need a lawyer to go fishing or hunting.”

One of the ways the Secretary started the quest to open new public lands to hunting and fishing was to utilize the hunt and fish chiefs in the 10 regions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which is a part of the Department of the Interior.

“We directed those chiefs to work within their region to identify opportunities to expand hunting and fishing or find new opportunities to allow hunting and fishing,” he said. “For example, you may have the opportunity to hunt only squirrels. I asked them to look at the possibility of deer hunting.”

Secretary Bernhardt, who served as Deputy Secretary before becoming Secretary in April 2019, sent those hunt and fish chiefs to the respective wildlife and fisheries commissions in each state to identify ideas on expanding opportunities.

“Two years ago, we put out a rule to do that,” he said. “Our first year, we proposed (expanded hunting and fishing) on 385,000 acres. Last year, we added 1.7 million acres. This year it was 2.3 million acres. That’s over 4 million acres of new or expanded opportunities. For example, all of the Fish and Wildlife Service hatcheries had never been open to hunting. We had these vast spaces not open to hunting, but there was great wildlife there. We also asked each refuge manager to look at our rules and the states’ rules to see if we could line up seasons. As long as it made sense scientifically, facilitating access was really important.”

Secretary Bernhardt said hunters and anglers are the driving force behind conservation efforts through funding provided by hunting and fishing license sales and the excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, fishing tackle and other outdoor recreation items.

“The North American Wildlife Conservation Model, the most successful model on the planet, demands two things,” he said. “It requires that hunters and anglers are participating. Their activity is what really funds conservation. We want to do everything we can to make sure the future is bright for those resources to be there. We have very good science on managing our wildlife, but we have to have the participation of the people. So, we’ve tried to make things simpler. We’ve tried to make things more accessible. I’m a big believer that if people have access and opportunity, once you get them out there, you can never get them back. I take people out on my boat all the time. If I get them hooked, they’ll never tell me they don’t want to come next time. We do everything we can to get youth involved. At the end of the day, it’s going to take the collaboration of the state government and federal government to keep the public involved.”

Secretary Bernhardt said he expects Congress to pass the Great American Outdoors Act soon, which will have a huge impact on outdoors activity for the foreseeable future. The act, which passed the Senate Wednesday, would fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund and provide $9.5 billion in revenue for maintenance and upgrades at National Parks.

“I think what this whole experience we’ve had with this COVID-19 thing is that people really realize how great it is to be outside, whether it’s a bike path or a fishing hole,” he said. “This has never been done before. Congress is about to pass legislation that funds the restoration of our National Parks. Maintenance has been deferred on them. They’re crumbling down. Most of them were built from the ’30s to the ’60s. It also fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It’s been around since the ’60s, but it’s only been fully funded a couple of times.”

Bernhardt said the infusion of the money from the proposed act, coupled with the mandate from the John Dingell Recreation Act to maximize hunting and fishing opportunities, will be a boon for outdoors recreation.

“I think those two things together will be the most significant conservation management effort by a President and Congress in more than 50 years,” he said.

Secretary Bernhardt admitted he didn’t realize how extensive the Alabama Artificial Reef Program is until Commissioner Blankenship pointed out the more than 1,000 square miles of reef zones off the Alabama coast.

“We have everything from the New Venture, our large ship reef, to the concrete pyramids,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “We have decommissioned Abrams military tanks that were deployed in the ’90s.”

Commissioner Blankenship said ADCNR works with the Department of the Interior on the Rigs to Reefs program to convert derelict oil and gas rigs off Alabama into artificial reefs at their original locations. The oil and gas companies save money by not having to haul the structures back to shore, and those companies make donations to keep the Rigs to Reefs program funded.

“I’ve been a big believer in Rigs to Reefs for a long, long time,” Secretary Bernhardt said. “I didn’t realize the scope of your reef program until I saw it (in the presentation). Everybody who fishes knows that structure is critical. Providing that structure and creating that environment is good for all of us and for the fishery.”

During the visit, Commissioner Blankenship highlighted other ADCNR-related achievements, including the designation of Gulf State Park’s Eagle Cottages as one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World, and the fact that Alabama has 17 community archery parks, more than twice the number in any other state in the nation.

The Commissioner pointed out that Alabama’s biodiversity is ranked first east of the Mississippi River and fifth overall and that the Forever Wild Land Trust helps purchase and protect sensitive habitat throughout the state.

Commissioner Blankenship invited the Secretary for another visit this fall to see the habitat of the rare Red Hills salamander in Monroe County

“We appreciate the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Species Recovery Grants,” he said “We’re working cooperatively to delist a couple of species. For the Red Hills salamander, through Alabama’s Forever Wild program, we’ve acquired about 11,000 acres of its critical habitat. It’s the same thing with the pygmy sunfish. Forever Wild acquired a piece of critical habitat to protect it. The other pygmy sunfish habitat is inside the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. My hope is that, working with this administration, we’ll be able to delist these two species in the next couple of years.”

On a personal note, Secretary Bernhardt grew up fly fishing in the beautiful streams around his hometown of Rifle, Colorado. Now he spends most of his fishing time in the Chesapeake Bay area in his Parker 2520 boat.

“I’m out there on that boat every chance I can be, and I’m out there with my son or daughter,” he said. “Nothing beats that for me. I fly-fished all my life. But I love to catch rockfish (striped bass). I love eating them, and my wife loves cooking them. So, it all works out perfect.”

As for hunting, Secretary Bernhardt said a huge moose rack mounted in his office reminds him of a memorable hunt in Alaska, but he returns most often to his roots by hunting elk in western Colorado.

“And I love waterfowl hunting, too,” he said. “The Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake has been very, very good to me.”
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.

5 hours ago

Chuck Martin endorses Republican Russell Bedsole in Alabama House District 49

Russell Bedsole’s Republican candidacy has received a boost in the Alabama House District 49 special election.

This seat, covering parts of Bibb, Chilton and Shelby Counties, was vacated by the resignation of State Rep. April Weaver (R-Brierfield), who left the legislature to join the administration of President Donald J. Trump.

Bedsole led the pack in the GOP primary held last week, finishing ahead of second-place Mimi Penhale and third-place Chuck Martin. Since no candidate got a majority, a runoff will be held on September 1.

On Wednesday night, Martin endorsed Bedsole in that runoff via a Facebook post.

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Martin led Bibb County in primary votes and finished with a competitive 24.25% overall.

In a release, he expounded on why he is publicly backing Bedsole.

“After thoughtful consideration, I am endorsing Russell Bedsole to represent District 49 in the Alabama House of Representatives,” Martin stated. “Like me, Bedsole has deep roots in District 49. I believe he will be a strong voice for Bibb, Shelby, and Chilton counties, and he will fight for our communities’ conservative Christian values in Montgomery.”

Bedsole, a longtime deputy sheriff in Shelby County and an Alabaster city councilor, has already been endorsed by the likes of Shelby County Sheriff John Samaniego and the Alabama State Fraternal Order of the Police in the race.

“It is an honor to be endorsed by Chuck Martin,” Bedsole commented. “As a representative of District 49, I will fight for pro-life and pro-Second Amendment legislation, along with funding for developing crucial infrastructure, in the Alabama House of Representatives.”

Penhale, the legislative director for Shelby County’s legislative delegation, has taken an unpaid leave of absence from her state government job to run for office. She has been endorsed by the Alabama Farmers Federation.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

7 hours ago

License plate to support Alabama business proposed — Must meet 1,000 application benchmark

A license plate that will support Alabama small businesses will be created if 1,000 apply for one by July 31.

Funds from purchasing the plate will be given to Main Street Alabama, which will in turn provide workshops and grants to small businesses around the Yellowhammer State.

The tag can be applied for here. A $50 fee accompanies the application.

“With this program, individuals can show their dedication to their favorite small businesses, who in many cases are their friends and neighbors, with a tag that gives back to them with workshops and grants focused on strengthening their business,” said Main Street Alabama state coordinator Mary Helmer in a statement.

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Helmer added, “Small businesses keep it local by consistently sponsoring the local baseball team, providing gift baskets for the local charity drives and creating jobs in their community.”

Main Street Alabama is a non-profit entity and an offshoot of Main Street America organization.

The artwork on the tag was created by Chris Seagle, a graphic designer based in Birmingham.

The idea for a car tag supporting small business originated among a group of elected officials in Jefferson County.

Casey Middlebrooks, a member of the group and a Hoover City Councilman, said that his fellow officials “felt Main Street Alabama had the statewide presence and resources to facilitate support to small businesses throughout the state.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

7 hours ago

Ivey urges Alabamians to complete Census — Billions in funding, congressional seat at stake

Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL) on Friday released a video public service announcement urging Yellowhammer State residents to complete the 2020 Census.

The deadline to complete the Census recently was moved up to September 30, meaning there is less than seven weeks left for Alabamians to either self-respond or respond to Census Bureau field staff.

Leaders from the public sector, as well as industry, economic development, charitable and civic organizations, have warned for months that Alabama has a lot on the line during the 2020 Census response period.

Projections have shown the state will lose a congressional district and corresponding electoral college vote — likely to a far-left state such as New York, California or Illinois — if Alabama’s response rate continues to lag.

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“Complete your 2020 Census today,” Ivey said to begin the new PSA. “We only have until September 30.”

“Without you, Alabama stands to lose billions in funding, a seat in Congress and economic development opportunities,” she continued. “It only takes minutes to complete. Go to my2020census.gov or participate by phone or mail.”

The governor concluded, “Be counted — if not for you, for those in Alabama who depend on you for a brighter tomorrow.”

Watch:

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

8 hours ago

Report: Birmingham golf tournament Regions Tradition canceled for 2020

A report from WBRC in Birmingham on Friday says that the yearly golf tournament Regions Tradition has canceled the 2020 edition due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The event organizers say it will be back in early May of 2021.

WBRC says they were told by a “source close to the tournament” about the decision to cancel the 2020 version.

The tournament had previously been rescheduled from its normal late spring/early summer slot until September due to COVID-19 concerns.

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Regions Tradition is a tournament on the PGA Tour Champions circuit, a series of competitions held each year for golfers over age 50.

According to Alabama NewsCenter, the annual Regions Tradition tournament has an economic impact on the Birmingham area between $20 million and $25 million every year.

The Tradition was first held in 1989 and is one of the five major golf tournaments on the Senior Circuit.

Regions took over as the event’s sponsor in 2010 and relocated the tournament to the Birmingham area beginning in 2011.

Steve Stricker won the tournament in 2019, a title he will now keep for two years.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

8 hours ago

Jefferson County health officials say coronavirus pandemic precautions will continue into 2021

Two impactful figures in Jefferson County’s healthcare system advised on Friday that the coronavirus pandemic and resulting precautions such as mask-wearing will remain a major factor in public life at least through the end of 2020.

Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson and CEO of the UAB Health System/Ascension St. Vincent’s Alliance Will Ferniany briefed reporters on coronavirus information during a Friday morning videoconference.

“This pandemic is not going away by the end of December,” warned Ferniany.

Wilson said it was “very likely” that he would push to keep a mask order in place across Jefferson County “through the flu season” which would indicate the ordinance would stay in place at least through the spring of 2021.

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“We have pretty good evidence that our face-covering orders, and our help from the public wearing face coverings, has made a difference,” remarked Wilson.

“We still have a ways to go but we’re starting to bend the curve downward,” Wilson told reporters.

The remarks made by Wilson and Ferniany are similar to what Mobile County epidemiologist Dr. Rendi Murphree told Yellowhammer News in recent days.

Ferniany said that UAB is making a significant investment in rapid testing that should be ready for action by the end of the year, the availability of which should make dealing with the virus more manageable.

Wilson highlighted a standard he felt more people should understand.

The county health officer said that any person exposed to someone positive for COVID-19 should quarantine for 14 days, even if they go out and get a test showing they do not have the virus.

“Fourteen days is the maximum amount of time from being exposed to the virus where you could still develop symptoms,” Wilson said to explain the policy.

Ferniany said UAB Hospital is currently treating around 90 patients, down from a peak of 130. He relayed that 40 of the COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized are in the ICU.

RELATED: Alabama coronavirus update: Hospitalizations begin to decrease, new cases falling

The executive also said that the toughest aspect of caring for COVID-19 cases currently is the shortage of nurses. He said the hospitals he oversees are down “several hundred nurses” with the partial explanation that traveling nursing companies are luring workers away with higher wages.

Wilson reported additional good news for Jefferson County. He said that the area is not experiencing a higher rate of black citizens dying from COVID-19 than white citizens.

“So far we’re not seeing a racial disparity in terms of deaths in Jefferson County,” he relayed.

“Forty-one percent of our deaths in Jefferson County with COVID-19 are African American. The African American population is 43%,” Wilson stated.

Yellowhammer News asked Wilson what kind of benchmarks he would need to be passed to trigger a loosening of coronavirus precautions and whether that would be dependent on a vaccine.

“We’re not going to be out of the woods for quite a long time,” Wilson responded.

“The bottom line will be the amount of disease activity we have in the community, and the trajectory of that,” he continued.

With respect to the vaccine, Wilson replied, “It is really hard to predict what is going to happen with the vaccine: How effective is it going to be, how widespread we’re going to be able to vaccinate people and how soon. There are way too many unknowns for us to say much about that.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95