2 months ago

State Parks online campground reservations system goes live

Ready for a camping trip to one – or several – of the beautiful Alabama State Parks? Ensuring you’ll have a site for your RV, travel trailer or tent just became much easier when the new online campground reservation system (www.reservealapark.com) went live.

When ADCNR Commissioner Chris Blankenship was appointed by Governor Kay Ivey in 2017, one of his first initiatives was to connect all Alabama State Parks to broadband internet service and to implement an online reservation system for Alabama State Parks. Parks officials spent months integrating the technology into the 17 parks the system will serve, and the new online tool will include a variety of features that park visitors have requested.

“One of the things we were intentional about providing to the customer was to look at a site’s availability for the whole year instead of one specific date range,” said Emily Vanderford, Natural Resources Planner with the State Parks Division. “This new system gives them a longer date range. If they have a favorite campsite, they can look at availability and book it. That is something customers asked for – being able to look at that site’s availability across the year.”

Another feature of the new reservations system is the ability to book at multiple parks during one online visit.

“If someone is making a road trip and they want to book several parks along the journey, they can do that in one booking,” Vanderford said. “There are some specific features that people have wanted, like saving their bookings into their account to know which sites they’ve stayed on in the past. Also, now you can purchase a gift card and use a gift card in that same system.”

Vanderford thinks people are really going to appreciate this tool with the user-friendly online system.

“But we also want people to know that if they have questions, they can call us, and we will be happy to help,” she said.

State Parks Assistant Director Rob Grant started the work on the new online system with a Request for Proposals (RFP) last fall. After Parks officials selected a vendor, Vanderford took the lead.

“We really appreciate the hard work Emily has done since she took on the role,” Grant said. “After the RFP was finally issued, Emily joined in and ran with it. And our staff has been fantastic in navigating the new system.”

Prior to the new system, nine parks had campground reservations on an online system, but that system linked to each park separately and did not include many features.

“Before, all our parks on the online system, ran their own system,” Vanderford said. “So, if you wanted to make a booking at Cheaha, you had to go to a Cheaha-specific booking link. If you wanted to make a reservation at Lake Lurleen, you had to call that park. With the new system, we have all of the parks we operate on the online reservation system. There were multiple pieces to the puzzle. One was to transfer the old reservation system into the new system. Then we had to prepare all of the campgrounds that had been in the old system for the new system. The challenging part was to do that in a way that provided some uniformity. With this system, everything comes into one centralized source that can make a booking for any and all of our camping parks. That was one of the bigger challenges, making sure we could bring everything into one system and make it work so the customers could pull up the sites and see all of our parks.”

With the new campground reservation tool, campers can go online and find numerous options to plan a trip to Alabama’s most scenic destinations, from the Appalachian Mountains to Mobile Bay.

“Visitors may not know which park they want to go to,” Vanderford said. “With the new system, they might want to camp in central Alabama. They could type in Birmingham, and the system will pull up a list of parks in the area. Then they can book any or all of those parks from the same place. Starting last fall, there was a lot of detailed setup work for pricing and availability. All of those things have to be ready to go so the customers can book online and avoid issues for them or Parks operations. We don’t want customers showing up to campgrounds they’ve made a booking for and the site not be available.”

The 17 parks included in the online booking system had to have upgrades to internet service to ensure the parks’ offices had the computing power to integrate into the new system.

Vanderford said now that parks’ offices have upgraded internet service, the plan is to add more internet access for park users as soon as possible.

“High-speed internet is definitely something we are working towards for the campers, but it may not be distributed throughout the parks for the campers at this time,” she said. “That’s a totally different challenge – making sure there is secure Wi-Fi. We had park offices that did not have enough internet service to run the system, so we had to upgrade those first.”

Grant added, “We have been redoubling our efforts to expand the Wi-Fi access now that we have fiber to each park and the online booking system launched. This continues to be one of Commissioner Blankenship’s top priorities.”

The new campground reservations system has been online since August 19, and it appears there are many happy campers.

“A lot of bookings have been made since the system went live,” Vanderford said. “When you launch a system of this magnitude, there are always some things you have to work out. I’m invested in making sure the customers have the best experience they can. All in all, I think it has gone really smoothly. Customers have been asking for some features for a long time that we can now provide. We have staff all across the state who have done a great job of learning the new system. We will be able to answer questions people may have.”

Grant said the feedback he’s received has been positive.

“We have had some rave reviews from guests who have accessed the new system,” Grant said. “They’ve had some great comments and some suggestions. We’re still tweaking it and making adjustments. We’re adding in more and more functionality, but we’re pleased with the system and the progress we’ve made.”

Currently, the new online system includes campsites and camping cabins. Chalets, cabins and hotel rooms at the parks will remain in the legacy system for the time being.

“We are working to put everything in one system,” Vanderford said. “That’s something we will be working on this fall.”

State Parks Director Greg Lein said that this has truly been a team effort to improve services to park guests, and that the project especially benefitted from the dedication of two Parks employees over the last year.

“Rob Grant spent countless hours in 2019 researching companies and reservations systems to prepare our agency for the formal Request for Proposals and to develop the eventual contract,” Lein said. “Emily Vanderford led our efforts to review proposals and implement the transition process from the old system to the new system over the last 9 months. She has literally lived and breathed reservations over the summer to the point where they are probably part of her dreams. This work could have never been accomplished were it not for Rob and Emily’s leadership and commitment to the project and our park guests, and the support we received from Commissioner (Chris) Blankenship, Deputy Commissioner (Ed) Poolos, and our Information Technology staff.”

To look at the new online booking options, go to www.reservealapark.com. For more information on reservations, please visit www.alapark.com/reservations.

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.

Setting the record straight on Baldwin County’s toll fallacies

Baldwin County voters will head to the polls in just a matter of days to cast their vote on a full ballot, including several local amendments which will influence various aspects of residents’ everyday living. Of the four local amendments on this year’s ballot is Local Amendment 2, which I co-authored, and which proposes the creation of the Baldwin Beach Express II (BBEII), extending the northern end of the current Baldwin Beach Express to link I-10 with I-65 (the project).

If approved by the voters of Baldwin County, a toll authority would be established on this new stretch of road to pay for the construction and continual maintenance of the roadway. The toll authority would only be granted jurisdiction over the BBEII, and no other road, leaving drivers the choice to take this new roadway or continue using their everyday roadways just as they have been doing for years, still free of charge. We anticipate the new road will be available for use in five to eight years.

Due to the four-letter word “toll,” opposition has taken to various platforms urging Baldwin County voters to reject Local Amendment 2. However, these opposing voices misrepresent crucial aspects and facts of Local Amendment 2 that make the BBEII a safe and sound move for Baldwin County. While similar initiatives have appeared on ballots in years past, this year elected officials are asking Baldwin County voters to vote yes on this new roadway. The proposed BBEII is a totally different, locally controlled toll authority.

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This amendment is appearing on this year’s ballot in a timely manner. If not voted on this year, it is likely the amendment would not be presented to the public for at least another two years. Moreover, construction of the approved roadway would not finish until five to eight years after the initial vote. This is time we simply do not have when dealing with matters of infrastructure, county growth, safety, and economic opportunity.

Since 2014, our county’s population has grown nearly 50%. The time to invest in our future infrastructure is now and doing so will assure that we are able to support and sustain Baldwin County’s potential growth for years to come.

Recently, it has been suggested that Baldwin County voters will be giving lawmakers a blank check to construct this new roadway. The blank spaces found in the legislation are put in place due to the introduction of contingent acts. In other words, this amendment cannot be considered an act until final passage, and until Baldwin County votes “yes” on Local Amendment 2.

False assertions have also been made regarding the makeup of the toll authority members and their powers. The proposed act clearly requires that the Toll Authority Directors be appointed by the Baldwin County Commission and will serve a maximum six-year term limit. Toll Authority Directors will be held accountable by the Baldwin County Commission and may be subject to impeachment by the County Grand Jury, District Attorney or the Alabama Attorney General. The legislation also includes a provision of law (page 23, line 17) that prohibits nepotism, ensuring the Toll Authority Directors are acting on behalf of the common good for Baldwin County.

A yes vote on Local Amendment 2 will only improve our way of life in Baldwin County. We may continue using the existing free routes as we have been doing, free of charge, and will never have to be concerned with any toll. Your tax dollars are not going toward this project. Rather, the roadway extension will be 100% paid for by the toll itself, if and only if you choose to drive on the BBEII. Drivers who opt to take their regular free routes will never have to pay the toll fee.

This local amendment offers strengthened infrastructure to keep up with our rapidly growing population, secures an additional north-bound evacuation route, and will bring new job and economic development opportunities to our region.

Please, join me in voting yes on Local Amendment 2.

Alabama State Representative Steve McMillan represents District 95 and serves as Chairman of the Baldwin County Legislative Delegation.

4 hours ago

7 Things: Only 13 coronavirus deaths in Alabama without pre-existing conditions, Jones’ voting record is closer to Schumer than Shelby, vaccine info by December and more …

7. Stephen King’s Twitter isn’t IT

  • It’s no secret that famed author Stephen King has been politically outspoken, especially in more recent years. Now, he’s calling out former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville for not being willing to debate U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL).
  • King on Wednesday tweeted, “Tommy Tuberville wouldn’t even debate Doug Jones. Hey, Alabama, do you know a chicken___ when you see one? Or – ha-ha—when you DON’T see one?” This came right after Tuberville was a no-show at the debate event co-hosted by the College Democrats and Republicans at Auburn University, which Jones attended.

6. Walmart is removing guns

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  • Due to continued civil unrest in Philadelphia, Walmart has decided to remove firearms and ammunition from the sales floor in stores throughout the United States. Store spokesperson Kory Lundberg said this is being done as a “precaution.”
  • The firearms and ammunition will still be available for purchase, but they’ll no longer be on display. Lundberg also noted that this has been “done on several occasions over the last few years” in times of civil unrest.

5. Biden campaign refuses to address Hunter Biden issues

  • There has been further confirmation that the FBI has an open investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter. In spite of that, the Biden campaign continues to not even address the issue and declare that they will not engage in questions about the matter.
  • During an interview with financial outlet Cheddar, the Biden campaign’s national press secretary Jamal Brown was asked to respond to the allegations made by Hunter Biden’s former business partner Tony Bobulinksi. He responded by declaring the question off-limits, saying, “We’re not going to waste any time on this smear campaign. It’s just another distraction from Trump’s failed leadership.” Instead of receiving further grilling, the anchor responded by saying, “Fair enough.”

4. Democrats could take the Senate

  • Sheffield, AL’s own Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been very honest about where the Senate stands, and he’s said that there’s a “50-50” chance that Republicans could lose control of the Senate.
  • McConnell also said that looking “at the Democrat Party today, you out to be frightened. We’re fighting for our way of life.” He has remained confident that he’ll win reelection in Kentucky.

3. We’ll know more about vaccines by December

  • As one of the leading infectious disease experts and members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Dr. Anthony Fauci told the University of Alabama at Birmingham during a virtual coronavirus research symposium that we’ll have more information on a vaccine for the virus in the coming months.
  • Fauci advised, “[B]y the end of November to the beginning of December, we will know – based on the size of the trial and rate of infections that are going on in this country – if we will have a safe and effective vaccine.” Facui added that he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the vaccine.

2. Jones is closer to Schumer

  • FiveThirtyEight.com has released a “Trump Score” for how closely members of the legislature have voted with President Donald Trump, and U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) only scored 34.8% since taking office in 2018.
  • For comparison, U.S. Senators Angus King (I-ME) and Mark Werner (D-VA) scored closely with Jones at 37.9% and 35.5%, respectively, but Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) scored 23.4%, U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) had 22.6%, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) had 20.3% and U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) scored 23.0%.

1. Cases and hospitalizations are on the rise

  • There have been spikes with the coronavirus across the globe, the United States saw its biggest day ever yesterday. Alabama is now seeing an increase in both cases and hospitalizations, but both numbers are far below the peak of the pandemic Alabama saw in July.
  • The Alabama Department of Public Health is now reporting that there have only been 13 deaths from the coronavirus that didn’t have any underlying health conditions as a contributing factor, which is due to a change in criteria that dropped the number from 130 to 13. This isn’t to say this isn’t a big deal, but it does mean that it is even more important to protect the vulnerable as we continue to safely reopen.

5 hours ago

State Sen. Albritton: ‘Still questions’ on Ivey prison proposal locations, including Escambia County site

Two of the three locations named in Governor Kay Ivey’s recently announced prison proposal have received a degree of public pushback from local residents.

A location near Brierfield had been the subject of public scrutiny by Bibb County and nearby Shelby County residents. Elected officials in Elmore County have also expressed concern over a site near Tallassee.

The third site in Escambia County near Atmore had been seemingly free of controversy. However, according to State Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore),whose district includes the proposed Escambia County location, that is not necessarily the case.

During an interview with Mobile radio’s FM Talk 106.5, Albritton said there were some issues he and others were attempting to iron out with the Alabama Department of Corrections on the southern proposed site.

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“I spoke with Commissioner Dunn yesterday about this very issue, and there are still questions out there about all three of the sites selected, and we’re still trying to get some answers on some things,” he said. “But Jeff, we have got to have new prisons. There’s just no doubt that some construction has got to be done. We tried several times on the legislative side to put through a plan, and both times that we got it through the Senate and down to the House, the House killed it. The latest one, it had been through the House, it had been through the Senate. It had even been through the conference committee in the Senate and the House wouldn’t take it out of the basket. It just died. The governor — we challenged her, and she challenged us and said if I could depend on the legislature pass something, fine. But you haven’t. We’ve got to have a plan. At least the Governor has a plan. Whether I like it or don’t like it, it is a better plan than what we have right now.”

The Escambia County lawmaker said there had been complaints but said they had chosen not to take a public approach to their response.

“Of course, we’ve gotten complaints,” Albritton said. “We’ve got all unique circumstances. We have been pushing back. We haven’t been pushing back publicly. We have had discussions, and that was part of the discussion yesterday. We are trying to work out some of the details and finalize some of the matters and get some answers. But I did not see any particular gain in going public in this fight. We just need to try to work it out the best we could.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

6 hours ago

Rejecting the Joe Biden energy plan and the Green New Deal

Energy is a resource that we cannot ignore. It is a crucial part of our everyday lives in America. When we flip the lights on in our homes, we do not worry about them working, we expect them to work. That is called “Reliability” in the utility world. Well, that is no longer the case in some parts of America. The reason for that is radical left policies that have been the groundwork for the Green New Deal – a move to unreliable, uncontrollable and expensive energy production.

And as your Public Service Commissioner, I am very worried about it! Look at California. Between 2011-2018, electricity prices rose 27% more in California than they did the rest of the country. During that time, California’s carbon emissions rose 3.7%. As California has all but phased out nuclear energy, they are on the verge of phasing out gas-powered energy as well. Due to an over-reliance on renewable energy sources that could not sustain the stress to their power grid, California has announced multiple rolling blackouts in 2020. The radical environmental activists continue to push for more and more renewable resources that can not yet sustain the demand Californians have for power. With regard to the climate crisis, Governor Gavin Newsom said that “California is America fast-forward.” I hope we are not. The unreliability of their power supply, the high cost of energy, and highly regulated industry has all but destroyed their economic growth. California has been a test case for the Green New Deal, and it has failed that test emphatically.

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We all know that Joe Biden supports the Green New Deal. He denies it publicly when questioned about energy reforms he supports, but his own website calls it a “crucial framework.” We know Kamala Harris supports the Green New Deal because she was an original co-sponsor of the bill. Harris is so adamant about getting the Green New Deal passed that she stated during a 2019 town hall that she would support abolishing the legislative filibuster to get the deal done. At last week’s presidential debate, Joe Biden said that he wanted to “transition from the oil industry.” Joe Biden’s team has spent a lot of time performing damage control on that comment, stating that the oil industry would remain by “branching out beyond oil.” Biden and Kamala Harris have been walking back comments on fracking as well. During the debate, Joe Biden denied saying he was going to end fracking and tried to clarify that his position was no new fracking on public land. This is patently false. Biden and Harris spent their entire time during the Democratic primary speaking about how both would end fracking in the United States. Biden and Harris have repeatedly stated that they want to ban fracking, with Alexandria Ocasio-Ortez calling fracking “unnecessary.”

So which is it? Do we take them at their word when they play damage control, or do we take them at the word when they were on the campaign trail, and hold them to the language of Green New Deal proponents? A Biden administration simply cannot be trusted to do what is right for Alabamians when it comes to energy and utilities.

My job is to represent the best interests of every single Alabamian. Businesses flock to Alabama because of our affordable and reliable utilities and I want to keep it that way. I want Alabamians to be able to use their hot water when they need to; to be able to use their electricity when they need to; and I want energy-producing companies to have the empowerment to continue serving Alabama while making advances in cleaner and renewable technologies, available at the cheapest rates possible. I am working to ensure that we as Alabamians respect the environment and continue to make advances in clean energy, while utilizing our backbone energy sources, such as clean coal and natural gas, that have proven to be reliable.

The decision is straightforward for me: what is best for Alabama is a federal government that allows Alabama to continue prospering in the manner it has been. I oppose Joe Biden’s radical progressive plans that undermine the sovereignty of the state, kill jobs and end the fossil fuel industry that produces efficient and affordable energy and is ever-expanding the way that it becomes cleaner and better for the environment. Joe Biden’s climate and energy plan will make the people of Alabama’s lives worse, not better.

I hope you all keep these things in mind when you go to the poll on Tuesday. I encourage everyone to vote because it is a privilege and an honor to live in a country that supports free and fair elections, and energy that is reliable and affordable like it has been the past four years under the Trump administration. Let your voices be heard and let’s keep Alabama great.

Jeremy H. Oden serves as Alabama Public Service Commissioner, Place 1. Opinions expressed above do not represent the position of the Public Service Commission or its other commissioners.

20 hours ago

Data: Doug Jones closer to Chuck Schumer, Mazie Hirono than to Joe Manchin on supporting Trump

Only four full days away from the November 3 general election, U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) continues to claim to be a moderate on the campaign trail. However, the data paints a much different picture.

The highly respected, non-partisan data and analytics site FiveThirtyEight.com hosts a comprehensive database tracking each member of Congress’ voting history. This includes a tally of how often representatives and senators vote with or against President Donald Trump’s position; this data is formulated into a percentage, comprising each legislator’s “Trump Score.”

The dataset also takes Trump’s margin of victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016 (in each state for senators and each district for representatives) and calculates a predicted Trump Score that hypothesizes how often a member is expected to vote with Trump based on that margin.

FiveThirtyEight then compares each legislator’s actual Trump Score to the predicted score to effectively see the approximate difference between the sentiment of a legislator’s constituents and that individual’s congressional votes.

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Examining Jones, the data showed Alabama’s junior senator has a Trump Score of only 34.8% since he took office in January 2018. The data is up-to-date, with Jones’ latest vote against Justice Amy Coney Barrett factored in.

In contrast, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has a score of 51.6% and U.S. Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) came in at 51.5%; both are perceived-moderate Democrats.

Other Democrats who have been recently ousted from office by voters in red states also scored significantly higher than Jones, including U.S. Senators Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota (54.8%), Joe Donnelly of Indiana (54.2%), Claire McCaskill of Missouri (45.8%) and Bill Nelson of Florida (43.4%). Even current blue- and purple-state Democratic Caucus members had higher Trump Scores than Jones, including U.S. Senators Angus King of Maine (37.9%), Mark Werner of Virginia (35.5%) and Jacky Rosen of Nevada (35.1%).

In fact, Jones’ Trump Score is closer to the far-left wing in his party than the more-moderate senators. The Democrat from Alabama scored closer to the likes of U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) than to Sinema and Manchin; Jones scored closer to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and U.S. Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) than to Heitkamp.

Overall, Jones also scored closer to the extreme left of his party than he did to the left-most Republican, U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME).

Based on Trump’s 2016 margin, Jones’ predicted Trump Score was 85.5%. This means his actual Trump Score was 50.7 percentage points lower than expected. That massive margin was second-largest nationally, with only U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) having a higher negative differential.

The more recent data paints an even worse picture for Jones. Looking at only the 116th Congress, which began in January 2019 and is still in session, Jones’ Trump Score dropped to 23.1%. Simply put, the more time he spent in D.C., the further to the left Jones went.

The Yellowhammer State’s senior senator is a much different story; U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) has an overall Trump Score of 93.5%.

Jones will face Republican U.S. Senatorial nominee Tommy Tuberville at the ballot box on Tuesday.

RELATED: Tuberville: Jones’ vote against Barrett ‘represented the liberal beliefs of his high-dollar campaign donors in California and New York’

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