Lawley Back to Pell City after 8 Years at Helm of DCNR
By DAVID RAINER
Presiding over arguably the most tumultuous period in the history of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Commissioner Barnett Lawley will soon head home to Pell City to “watch his trees grow.”
During his eight-year tenure under Gov. Bob Riley, Lawley has guided the department through two major hurricanes, an extended drought and the worst oil spill the nation has ever experienced.
As he returns to the private sector, Lawley said although it’s really difficult to recap all that transpired during those years, one accomplishment is fresh in his mind. The recent opening of the Aquatic Biodiversity Center near Marion gives Lawley great pleasure.
“One of the things I’m really, really proud of is the Aquatic Biodiversity Center that will work with mussels and snails,” Lawley said. “It’s something I can leave behind that will work into perpetuity to ensure clean water in the state. This has received an unbelievable amount of publicity. I’ve done interviews with publications from Germany, Vermont. I’ve talked to National Geographic. People are really excited because this is probably the biggest initiative in the world to clean water in the way designed through nature.
“But time flies when you look back. When we came here, we had the Gulf State Park Hotel and Convention Center that was falling apart. We had bad money problems that obviously had to be addressed. We were able to do that without anybody suffering a severe loss. We did that through attrition and more efficient operations. One way we were able to do that was Marine Police and our Conservation Enforcement Officers working together because their seasons were basically opposite. Therefore, Marine Police were helping game wardens in the winter and vice versa in the summer. It eliminated a need for a lot more people.”
A year-and-a-half into Lawley’s tenure, Hurricane Ivan slammed into the Alabama Gulf Coast and devastated the coastal communities and habitat.
“Ivan did away with our deteriorating Gulf State Park Hotel and Convention Center,” he said. “It wasn’t what I had planned. We haven’t been able to do anything because of all of the lawsuits, but hopefully we now have a clear path that the hotel and convention center can be rebuilt.
“But we have been able to do some other work at Gulf State Park with the new cottages that are almost like beach homes. And the Gulf State Park Pier has just been an overwhelming success that injected much-needed money into the State Parks system. The new swimming pool and store is really going to help the campground at Gulf State Park.”
While Lawley was Commissioner, Guntersville Lodge and Hotel was total revamped to great accolades from visitors all over the country. Lakepoint Lodge and Resort also completed a major renovation, while other parks received significant upgrades.
“We’ve been able to get these renovations done in a first-rate manner and not the patchwork that had been done for so long,” he said. “It’s really bringing rewards and helping the parks financially. As you know, we don’t get any General Fund appropriations. We have to make our own money, which makes it more like a business than any part of state government.”
During Lawley’s watch, the purchase of hunting and fishing licenses was upgraded from the traditional paper licenses only available to a licensed vendor. A system was developed with Wal-Mart and Alabama Interactive to sell licenses online and electronically, which has saved the department thousands of dollars and man-hours for the vendors.
“Going electronic with our license sales has also been a great benefit, not only with cash flow but record-keeping, as well,” he said. “We’ve won two awards because of our program and there are a lot of states that want to copy it. Our Information and Education Section has also won awards and our web site, OutdoorAlabama.com, was voted the best in the nation for state conservation agencies.”
Lawley also pushed regulations, including the three-buck limit and rules that give landowners and leaseholders more leeway in dealing with animals that threaten wildlife and the habitat.
“I think the buck limit is paying huge rewards,” he said. “What we were trying to create was a situation where hunters self-regulate themselves. That’s working quite well. I think loosening the coyote and feral hog hunting regulations have helped. I think the coyotes have taken a toll more than we can count on the deer population. And the feral hogs can do tremendous damage to property.
“We added crossbows and turkey decoys, which was controversial at the time. It hasn’t devastated the populations and has helped people get into the woods. If you don’t damage the resource, give the hunter a choice on how he wants to hunt.”
When Lawley became commissioner, he soon realized changes were needed in the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board and the way it conducted business. New rules were implemented that required that any change to the current rules and regulations that fell under the board’s authority must be discussed at a previous meeting before any vote could be taken. This was specifically designed to give the public more input into the process and it had been a considerable success.
“Having had the pleasure to serve as Chairman of the Advisory Board during the majority of Barnett’s time as Commissioner, I have always been impressed with the way he maintains the balance between what is best for the resource and allowing the public access to that resource,” said Dan Moultrie. “He has a way of bringing the different groups together to reach a compromise that benefits the user groups but also ensures that the habitat and wildlife are not adversely affected. He truly has a talent for the job.”
The Archery in Schools program has been a big success that gives individuals a pathway to more outdoors activities.
“It has taken off and I don’t think anybody in their wildest dreams would be as big as it is,” Lawley said. “It is not a hunting activity, but it could provide the spark someone needs to become a hunter.
“We need sportsmen. We’re a state where hunting is a heritage, not just for the camaraderie and values you teach your children, it’s the way we manage wildlife populations. It’s good table fare, too.”
When it comes to State Lands, Lawley considers the Forever Wild Program the most successful ever in Alabama. Forever Wild has purchased or acquired long-term leases on 221,000 acres across Alabama for public use, which includes hunting, fishing, hiking, horseback riding and many other outdoors activities.
“Forever Wild is the best program in government, without question,” Lawley said. “We’ve been able to almost double our money through matching funds. We would save money until we could buy larger tracts of land where it would be meaningful. Most of the land has been in Wildlife Management Areas, but we have been able to preserve some really pristine areas, like the Walls of Jericho, Turkey Creek in Birmingham, Perdido in Baldwin County. This preserves the habitat.”
“We’ve also done a great deal to promote non-game species through our birding trails and joining with Mobile Audubon Society to hold the Alabama Coastal Birdfest. Alabama is blessed with bird migrations and is a big attraction across the country.”
The State Lands Division built its crown jewel – the 5 Rivers Delta Resource Center – at the gateway of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta while Lawley was commissioner. The center provides educational opportunities with ample space for meetings and social gatherings.
“5 Rivers has been way more popular that we anticipated,” Lawley said. “It introduces and educates everybody to our estuaries and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, what the Delta means to our coastal habitat. The center is also a great meeting facility and it’s located in a perfect place on the Mobile-Baldwin line.”
Of course, the Marine Resources Division was thrust into the national spotlight when the Deepwater Horizon oil spill affected the Alabama Coast.
“Marine Resources has done a fantastic job in handling all that’s been involved with the oil spill,” Lawley said. “Fortunately, we were able to keep the oil out of Mobile Bay, thanks to the Governor and his efforts.
“And offshore, we’ve got the most extensive artificial reef program in the nation, which has allowed the red snapper to rebound with a vengeance. During the fall snapper season, people were catching limits in less than an hour.”
Lawley admits he had no idea the enormity of the commissioner’s job when Gov. Riley asked him to take the job.
“When I started I thought we only had 11 or 12 parks (there are 22),” he said. . Because I’ve been involved with conservation efforts and hunting and fishing all my life, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries is what I mainly knew about. I knew about State Lands.
“It’s been a real learning experience. I have enjoyed it because of the people I’ve met, the things I’ve learned and all that Alabama has to offer. Alabama is a special place, very special.”
Riley Boykin Smith, who preceded Lawley as Commissioner, knows full well what the job entails and thinks Lawley has handled it with aplomb.
“I know from first-hand experience how extensive the job of Commissioner is,” Smith said. “Barnett has been through disaster after disaster and has made sure Conservation and Natural Resources has emerged in a stronger position each time. He has handled every situation admirably and has ensured the people of Alabama will enjoy our great natural resources for generations to come.”
Lawley said his main regret is that the Hotel and Convention Center at Gulf State Park has not been rebuilt, although several obstacles have been cleared recently.
“Next week I’ll go back to Pell City and back into retirement,” said Lawley, who will be joined in retirement by Assistant Commissioner Hobbie Sealy. “I’ll finally have time do a little hunting and fishing, which I haven’t been able to do. I thought when I took this position that hunting and fishing would be part of the job, but I was mistaken.”
Tim Gothard of the Alabama Wildlife Federation said Lawley’s service as Commissioner has been exceptional.
“His passion for the outdoors combined with his passion for public service made all the difference,” Gothard said. “Barnett did an outstanding job bringing groups together to achieve significant goals. Three years ago he secured the support of all the hunting and fishing groups to pass legislation to increase license fees. Without that increase, our wildlife and fisheries management programs would be in serious trouble.
“Barnett was excellent at managing conflict as well. Hunters, anglers, and outdoor enthusiasts are opinionated and it is easy to have 10 different thought processes on a single issue. Barnett had a knack for patiently working through those issues with stakeholders and finding the common ground. He did an outstanding job with our Forever Wild program and the Aquatic Biodiversity Center is a truly unique and valuable accomplishment that Barnett brought to life. He should take great pride in knowing that his personal efforts and leadership made this a reality.
“Most of all, Barnett is just a great person that cares deeply about Alabama’s natural resources, our hunting and angling traditions, and ensuring that his grandchildren and ours have even better outdoor opportunities available to them in the years ahead.”
PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) Conservation Commissioner Barnett Lawley surveys the boom deployment along the Alabama Gulf Coast as Outdoor Alabama photographer Billy Pope chronicles the preparation for the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Lawley and former Conservation Commissioner Riley Boykin Smith enjoy the fellowship during the Alabama Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt.