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Future of Forever Wild in Voters' Hands
By DAVID RAINER
The Forever Wild ball is, as they say, in the court of the Alabama voters now that the Alabama Legislature has voted to put re-authorization of the public land acquisition program on the November 2012 ballot as a Constitutional Amendment.
Despite the uncertain future, it was business as usual at the Forever Wild Board meeting last week at Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum in Leeds. The board was apprised of the properties that have been recently closed, as well as the short list of desirable properties that have been nominated for purchase.
Greg Lein, State Lands Division Assistant Director who oversees the Forever Wild program, said significant purchases that were closed included 160 acres that would become part of the Freedoms Hills Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in northwest Alabama, while a 1,536-acre tract currently in the Little River Canyon WMA has been purchased. Also, a 2,500-acre tract that would become part of the Barbour County Wildlife Management Area in southeast Alabama will be closed this week.
“The 1,536-acre tract along Little River Canyon is part of the Little River Canyon WMA and has been under a no-cost lease,” Lein said. “Now that is secured forever through this effort. The Barbour County WMA Dixon addition adds 2,500 acres to the east side of the WMA. A year ago, Forever Wild purchased another 3,500-acre addition to Barbour. That is one of the few wholly state-owned Wildlife Management Areas and it’s nice to be able to grow that a little more. Historically, these are properties Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries had hoped to have. Some of these tracts were in the WMA years ago and then withdrawn. Now, here we are making it a permanent part of the WMA, which is pretty exciting to the staff because there is a lot of history to that WMA.”
Since its inception, Forever Wild has purchased lands for general recreation use, nature preserves, additions to Wildlife Management Areas and state parks. Land types vary from coastal wetlands to mountain tops. Each property is evaluated in four categories – nature preserves, state parks, recreational and WMA potential. The Forever Wild program has completed the purchases or long-term leases on 222,771 acres located throughout the state. More than 184,000 of those acres are open to hunting.
Forever Wild receives 10 percent of the interest and capital gains from the Alabama Trust Fund, up to a maximum of $15 million a year. Forever Wild received $10.1 million this past fiscal year from the fund, which collects royalties paid to the state by companies that produce natural gas in Alabama state waters. Lein said monthly checks from the trust fund usually range from $700,000 to $1 million a month, although current economic conditions have reduced recent checks to the lower end of the range.
Federal funds available to the program right now are also at a low ebb. Current obligations reduce the money available to less than $1 million, according to Lein.
“The balance is down right now because of all these great properties they’ve bought,” Lein said. “They’ve been very active in undertaking those opportunities and bring them to a close. Of course, the results of that are you spend your money.
“Our earnings this year have been less than they have been historically because of the economy. The fact is the trust fund and the interest earnings are subject to the economy and health of the economy. That’s what people talked about in this last term of the Legislature. Forever Wild is already prorated by the structure of the fund itself. So when the economy is poor, the earnings are poor and the program doesn’t have as much to work with. We have a natural proration process that’s built into Forever Wild’s funding. That’s what we have to live under. That’s why it’s so important to look at grant opportunities and donations. That’s why all the things that help stretch our dollars through these partnerships become so important.”
The board voted to pursue a first appraisal on 762 acres adjacent to Weogufka State Forest in the area of Flagg Mountain. The potential purchase of that property, which contains significant stands of longleaf pine, from The Conservation Fund would allow the Pinhoti Trail, which originates in Alabama, to be eventually connected to the Appalachian Trail.
The board also voted to pursue the purchase of the Heron Bay-Portersville Bay Wetlands tract, a 1,115-acre parcel in Mobile County, contingent on additional money being acquired through federal grants. The Coon Gulf-Blue Hole Addition in northeast Alabama was also approved for a first appraisal. The property is adjacent to the State Land Division’s Forest Legacy tract.
Lein said the board meeting was just an example of how much more additional work needs to be done through Forever Wild.
“You can talk about Wildlife Management Areas, or you can talk about State Parks, but irrespective of those categories, there’s a lot yet to be done,” Lein said. “Just as we’ve seen this year, there are so many new nominations, so much new interest in this program and the opportunities it provides, I think there is absolutely an interest on the part of the public to see this go another 20 years. We hope that’s what happens.”
N. Gunter Guy Jr., Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said Alabama voters approved the original authorization of the program with 84 percent of the vote, and he feels the people will be receptive to an extension.
“We just need to make sure we get the public, the voters, educated that it’s back on the ballot again and get them to support it,” Guy said. “I think it’s a fantastic program. I think there are a lot of benefits the public doesn’t realize. But the board, myself and our department (ADCNR) are acquainted with the benefits. That includes hunting land we’re able to procure to replace hunting land that is lost. People don’t realize how much public hunting land we lose every year that this program replaces. Plus, there are the other recreational aspects of Forever Wild – everything from hiking, biking, trail riding, canoeing and bird-watching, just to name a few. All of those things have a significant economic impact on the State of Alabama in a very positive way.
“That’s really the kind of communication we have to get out the voters, so they’ll know this program should be re-authorized come Nov. 6, 2012.”