Alabama’s Best Idea: Forever Wild

Let’s connect two very-far-apart dots: Alabama politics and English Romantic poet John Keats.  Still reading?  OK then, let’s give Keats his say:

by William Hilton, after  Joseph Severn, oil on canvas, (circa 1822)
by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn, oil on canvas, (circa 1822)

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

(the first few lines of “Endymion,” Book I, 1818)

And now, Alabama gets its turn, in less poetic language:368px-Seal_of_Alabama.svg

In order to meet the State’s outdoor recreation needs and to protect the natural heritage of Alabama for the benefit of present and future generations, it is the policy of the state to:

(a) Protect, manage, and enhance certain lands and waters of Alabama with full recognition that this generation is a trustee of the environment for succeeding generations;

(b) Protect, to the fullest extent practicable, recreational lands and areas of unique ecological, biological and geological importance; and

(c) Promote a proper balance among population growth, economic development, environmental protection, and ecological diversity. Accordingly, there is hereby established the Alabama Forever Wild Land Trust for the purpose of identifying, acquiring, managing, protecting and preserving natural lands and waters that are of environmental or recreational importance.

(Alabama Constitution of 1901, Amendment 543, Section 1, 1992)

In 1992 the people of Alabama approved the above amendment by an 83% positive vote.  It was one of the highest approval rates in the U.S. for environmental legislation, which proved emphatically that Alabamians wanted their things of beauty to be a joy forever.  In 2012 they re-approved Forever Wild for another 20 years, during an economic downturn, by a 3 to 1 margin.  There is nothing equivocal about those numbers.

So what is Forever Wild?  In a nutshell, it’s a program in which 10% of the interest from royalties paid to the state by offshore natural gas leases is earmarked to be spent on land acquisition and maintenance of land already purchased under the program.  It’s capped at $15 million, and since inception has acquired via purchase or donation over 111 tracts, comprising over 240,000 acres, all over the state.  A key point of the program is that the land can only be bought from willing sellers — it cannot be grabbed by eminent domain or condemnation.  The program is overseen by a board of 15 people, structured in such a way as to spread membership geographically and to make sure that academia, state conservation officials, non-profit groups, outdoor recreation, and business groups have input into the appointments.  The board meets quarterly to consider nominated parcels for preservation as a natural preserve, state park, wildlife management area, or special recreational area.

Fifteen million dollars a year seems a princely sum, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not that much.  It’s around one percent of the annual Transportation Department budget.  Alabama has set aside only 4.4% of its land for the public, far below that of any other southeastern state.  Before Forever Wild passed in 1992, that figure was around 3.9%, so in its first 20 years Forever Wild only added half a percent to that number.

While researching for this post, I discovered this terrific map of Alabama public lands.  You can see at a glance that Forever Wild tracts are scattered all over the state, and often augment existing wildlife management areas and state parks.  Here in north Alabama, there are several notable tracts.

Monte Sano State Park currently has been extended by four Forever Wild parcels which have added 400 acres to the park. When we hiked a portion of the Flat Rock trail, we passed through the North Slope addition.  flatrock_curvedtreeFlat Rock is one of the longest trails in Madison County, with a total of 8.8 miles spanning Land Trust, state park, and private property.  It’s a very popular trail in the mountain biking community.  Another small tract, the Flat Rock Addition, protects a part of the trail on the southeast side of the mountain.  And yet another tract is under consideration on that side of the mountain, which will add another 154 acres to the park and protect more of the Flat Rock trail.

Have you ever hiked the McKay Hollow trail?  19branchinmckayhollowWe have, and the spring that feeds the creek that runs through McKay Hollow is protected by the Periwinkle Spring tract.  In the same area, the Arrowhead trail passes through part of the Big Cats Creek tract.

The other large Forever Wild purchase in Madison County is a significant one — the Certain tract on Green Mountain in south Huntsville.  This 340-acre parcel makes up a major portion of the Land Trust’s Blevin’s Gap Preserve.  The Certain, Varnedoe, West Bluff, Sugar Tree, and Smoke Rise trails are all on the Certain tract.certain_footpathviewtowest great_spangled_fritillary

Other great hikes in North Alabama are available thanks to Forever Wild purchases.  One that leaps to mind is the Walls of Jericho tract, a stunning 12,510 acre parcel in Jackson County that preserves the headwaters of the Paint Rock river and offers a very large (and frequently growing) wildlife management area.  trail1(“Wildlife management area,” in case you’re not familiar with the term, is an area where excess wildlife is managed by shooting it.  That’s not meant as a dig at hunters — it’s meant as a warning that when you are hiking in these areas you are well advised to wear orange blaze, lest you be accidentally “managed.”)  We’ve done the hike down to the Walls from the Alabama side — there’s also a trailhead to the north in Tennessee that is on our “to be hiked” list.  The Walls are a narrow gorge which open into a bowl-shaped amphitheatre with 200-foot cliffs all around.  This tract also includes another 8,943 acres in Tennessee, and there are plans to put in around 100 miles of trails in the area!  We’ll be watching this one very closely.

Forever Wild purchases have also added acreage to Cathedral Caverns, DeSoto, and Lake Guntersville state parks.  There are more tracts west of here in Lauderdale County.  One of them, Shoal Creek Preserve, is also on our list of places to visit.  It has trails and some intriguing kayaking possibilities.

Other notable acquisitions elsewhere in the state include the Mobile-Tensaw Delta tract, over 35,000 acres of protected wetlands and the nation’s second-largest river delta; the Coldwater Mountain tract in Calhoun County, home to a planned 60-mile system of mountain biking trails; and the Weogufka State Forest Addition in Coosa County, 762 acres that contain the southern trailhead of the Pinhoti Trail, Alabama’s longest trail at nearly 174 miles.

Despite a pretty clear indication of the people’s feelings on the subject, the Forever Wild program is occasionally threatened by Alabama legislators lacking the intestinal fortitude to make hard choices. Senator Clay Scofield is the latest in this ignoble line. He introduced a bill during a 2015 special session to eliminate the program completely and to use its monies to maintain existing state parks. I’m going to give Senator Scofield the benefit of a doubt and assume his intentions, while flawed, were an honest attempt to find a way to keep the state park system funded. One could also see this as a contemptuous swipe at the wishes of the people from a spineless dullard who found himself painted in a corner by the “no new taxes” platform that he ran on. Appallingly, this absurd bill passed the Senate on a 32-1 vote, with only Senator Cam Ward voting against it. Fortunately, enraged constituents gave their senators and representatives an earful, and Senator Scofield withdrew his support for the bill, effectively killing it in committee in the House. But history tells us that Alabama politicians love nothing more than gutting one program to temporarily prop up another, so we must remain vigilant.

Let’s not end on that note. Instead, let us turn from the ridiculous back to the sublime, and give Keats the last word:birchgrove

And now at once, adventuresome, I send
My herald thought into a wilderness:
There let its trumpet blow, and quickly dress
My uncertain path with green, that I may speed
Easily onward, thorough flowers and weed.

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