By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

National Hunting and Fishing Day will be celebrated across the nation Saturday, and Alabama will join the festivities with special access to the abundant natural resources in the state.

At a news conference Tuesday at Lower Wetumpka Shotgun Sports Club outside Montgomery, Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), announced that to honor the vast economic and cultural impact of hunting and fishing on Alabama, DCNR will waive boat launch fees at Alabama State Parks and offer a free day of fishing at Gulf State Park Pier on Saturday.

“We are blessed to live in a beautiful, beautiful state,” Blankenship said. “We live really in the best state for outdoors activities anywhere in the country. We have hundreds of miles of rivers and dozens of beautiful lakes. We have the Mobile Bay estuary and the Mobile Delta. We have the largest artificial reef system in the country. We have unbelievable hunting for deer, turkey, squirrel, doves and ducks on private and public land. Hunting and fishing is a way of life in Alabama.

“One of the beauties of living in this state is to be able to enjoy the outdoors that God has so gifted us with.”

Blankenship said one of DCNR’s main goals is to provide outdoor recreational opportunities in a variety of ways. Alabama now has 21 state parks, 20 state lakes, 33 wildlife management areas (WMAs), dozens of boat ramps, 12 shooting ranges, 12 archery parks, 20 physically disabled hunting areas, thousands of artificial reefs and thousands of acres of Forever Wild land available to the public.

“Hunting and fishing have a huge impact on our state economically,” Blankenship said. “It’s a $2.6 billion industry. That’s billion with a b. That means a lot of jobs for Alabamians. It’s not only the recreational opportunities but it puts people to work in the hunting and fishing industry. We’re a fairly small state, but we rank seventh in all of the nation in hunting expenditures. We rank 24th in fishing.

“Even though it’s such a big part of our state, only about 4 percent of our residents have hunting licenses. There are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. That’s one of the reasons we have this National Hunting and Fishing Day – to get people to understand and take advantage of the opportunities in the state and encourage them to get out and enjoy the outdoors.”

Blankenship said saltwater license sales are on an upward trend, probably from increased tourism along the coast and the extension of red snapper season.

“But we need to encourage participation and provide opportunities for people to have places to hunt and fish throughout the state,” he said. “I’m very thankful for the people who work for the Conservation Department, who maintain these areas and provide these opportunities for residents and visitors to enjoy our beautiful state.”

The news conference was coordinated by Pam Swanner of the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association, an entity dedicated to promotion of hunting, fishing and other outdoors opportunities found in the 23-county region of Alabama’s Black Belt.

“Our natural resources are abundant throughout our Sweet Home Alabama,” Swanner said. “We’re here today to recognize our hunters and anglers in their leadership roles in wildlife conservation.”

National Hunting and Fishing Day was established in 1971 by the U.S. Congress. On Saturday, Swanner said Alabama shooting retailers, public lakes, shooting ranges and Alabama State Parks are offering discounts and waiving fees for various services. Visit www.alabamablackbeltadventures.org for a list of Alabama participants.

“We encourage all Alabamians to get outdoors this Saturday,” Swanner said. “Encourage your sons, daughters, your grandkids or your neighbors to enjoy the benefits of nature. It’s good for your health. It’s relaxing, and, most of all, it’s a lot of fun.”

Tim Gothard, Executive Director of the Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF), said Saturday is a big day for the Federation.

“National Hunting and Fishing Day represents the fabric of what the Alabama Wildlife Federation is all about,” Gothard said. “Our organization was founded in 1935 by hunting and angling conservationists. Today, our 20,000 members and supporters represent that same passion and commitment for hunting and angling conservation.”

Gothard said AWF’s Alabama Nature Center facility in Millbrook has three ponds that are used by more than 10,000 youngsters, school groups and families annually.

Gothard also pointed out the AWF’s 15 Wild Game Cook-Offs throughout the state demonstrate the responsible use of the game and fish harvested.

“The Cook-Offs are celebrations of hunters and anglers and the game and fish we can harvest in Alabama and throughout North America, and responsibly using the game and fish we harvest to show it is great and healthy table fare,” Gothard said.

Bee Frederick, Southeastern States Director for the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, said the Foundation works with Congress, governors and state legislators to protect and advance hunting, angling, recreational shooting and trapping.

“We do this by working through the largest bipartisan, bicameral caucus in Congress, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, the 35 members of the Governors Sportsmen’s Caucus, of which Gov. Kay Ivey is a member, and the 48 states throughout the country that have a state legislature sportsmen’s caucus,” Frederick said. “The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation is proud to sponsor the National Hunting and Fishing Day again this year. We understand the important role that hunting and angling play socially, culturally, historically and economically across the nation.”

Frederick said the Foundation has been working with the various legislative bodies to improve access to hunting and fishing opportunities.

“What we’ve seen is access is cited as the No. 1 reason that people either give up or don’t get into hunting and angling,” he said.

Frederick said there’s good news and bad news on the horizon for those who love the outdoors.

“This is especially important when you look at the five-year study done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that showed a 20-percent increase in angling participation across the country,” he said. “But it also saw a 16-percent decrease in the hunting participation. We must redouble our efforts to make sure we are working together to tell our story, reduce barriers and introduce new participants to the great outdoors.”

Chuck Sykes, Alabama WFF Director, highlighted how the Division is exploring new ways to attract hunters, especially those with little or no hunting experience, with the new Special Opportunity Area (SOA) hunts.

“One of the missions for Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries is to provide quality public hunting and fishing opportunities for the citizens of Alabama and our non-resident visitors,” Sykes said. “One of the most exciting programs I think we’ve done since I have been with the Department is the Special Opportunity Areas. Like the Commissioner said, we have 33 WMAs throughout the state with properties that range in size from about 15,000 acres to about 60,000 acres. That can be intimidating for someone who is a novice hunter or accustomed to hunting private land.”

Sykes highlighted two properties, 6,500-acre Cedar Creek SOA in Dallas County and 4,500-acre Uchee Creek SOA in Russell County. The properties are divided into manageable hunt units. The registration process for the SOA hunts is going on now at www.outdooralabama.com. On Oct. 3, a computer-controlled, random drawing will be held to choose the hunters.

“If you are selected, you and one of your friends have one of these hunting units as your private hunting area,” Sykes said. “The only cost is an Alabama hunting license and a WMA permit. We’ve never before been able to offer anything like this to the citizens of the state.

“There’s one thing I want people to understand. We receive no money from the State General Fund. All the services we provide are funded by hunters and fishermen buying licenses and the money they spend on hunting and fishing equipment. So hunters and fishermen are paying the way for everybody to enjoy many outdoor opportunities like these.”

PHOTOS: (David Rainer) Saturday’s National Hunting and Fishing Day gives Alabama a chance to celebrate the state’s vast opportunities to enjoy the outdoors from fishing for saltwater and freshwater species to hunting small game like doves and big game like white-tailed deer.

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