Forever Wild turns 26. How Alabama established one of the greatest conservation programs in the state’s history

Forever Wild
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Forever Wild
Forever Wild’s Turkey Creek Nature Preserve. Photo from Alabamians for Forever Wild.

In 1992, Alabama had the least amount of public land set aside for conservation and wildlife in the South. The state of Alabama had no plan or programs to expand parks, nature preserves and wildlife areas. For more than a century, Alabama attempted to preserve and protect our natural treasures. It was crumbling and disappearing. Twenty-six years ago the people of Alabama changed that trend through the establishment of the Forever Wild program.

Forever Wild logo

Today, a quarter of a century later, the Forever Wild Program, the state’s premier land conservation is widely recognized as one of the most successful land protection initiatives in the country, protecting over 266,000 acres.

Forever Wild: A remarkable coalition

Starting In 1991, Republican Governor Guy Hunt and Commissioner of Conservation Jim Martin convened a group of 33 Alabamians to consider establishing a new land conservation program for the state.

Never before had a group of such diverse interests assembled in Alabama to talk about conservation and natural resources. The group included environmentalists, hunters, business leaders, heads of state agencies and representatives from both urban and rural communities.

Breakthrough

“It started with two pieces of paper.”

That’s how Kathy Stiles Freeland, the first director of The Nature Conservancy,  Alabama Chapter, described the group’s first breakthrough.

Doug Phillips, host of the award winning Alabama Public Television nature documentary television series Discovering Alabama was the facilitator. During the first meeting, he gave everyone two pieces of paper.

Discovering Alabama
Discovering Alabama’s Doug Phillips, aka Dr. Doug. Photo from Discovering Alabama

On one sheet, Phillips asked the participants to write down their greatest hope for the group. On the second piece of paper, they were to write their biggest fear.

Then Phillips made everyone read their papers to the group, sharing their hopes and fears.

To everyone’s surprise, they learned that they had the same hopes and fears.They all wanted to do something great for Alabama. They all feared politics and corruption.

Years later, Freeland described what happened next, “We sat and looked at each other. We had a common bond: the same hopes and fears. And that made us begin to see each other as people, other than an organizational representative and thus, the enemy.”

Building Trust

The members of the group began to trust each other. Commissioner Martin helped build that trust by holding the meetings at State Park lodges early in the morning. Most decided to come the night before. As one member of the committee told us, making everyone stay at the lodge, forced them to break bread together and learn about each other as well as their friends and families.

Before long, people stepped up, rolled up their sleeves and started working together. Unlikely partnerships and alliances were formed.

Legislation and referendum
Montgomery Alabama
Photo by: Pat Byington of the Alabama State Capitol

Eventually, the group helped direct and draft legislation that funded purchasing public land for conservation using a portion of the interest from revenue generated by oil and gas drilling off the shores of Alabama.

Anniston’s State Senator Doug Ghee and Representative Jim Campbell were the Conservation Bill’s legislative sponsors.” Jacksonville State University’s Pete Conroy said “it was a relationship building experience for everyone.”

Months later, the Alabama Legislature, almost unanimously, passed the Forever Wild Constitutional Amendment.

Not one special interest group got everything they wanted in the legislation, but everyone got something and felt comfortable with the results.

Once the legislation passed, it appeared on the November 1992 ballot as a proposed amendment to the Alabama Constitution. Led by Bill Ireland, the Birmingham industrialist, outdoorsman, conservationist and philanthropist, all the groups came together to promote and market the amendment to the general public.

Alabama voters approved the Forever Wild constitutional amendment with 84 percent of the popular vote. At the time, no other referendum in the nation had garnered that much support for a conservation initiative by a vote of the people.

Ruffner Mountain in Birmingham. One-third of Ruffner is Forever Wild property. Photo courtesy of Ruffner Mountain.

The spirit of Forever Wild was born.

“Forever Wild is an important component of state efforts to respond to the loss of land available for public hunting and outdoor recreation,” said Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “Since its inception, Forever Wild has secured over 266,000 acres of unique and diverse ecologically rich ecosystems that broaden the type and amount of recreational land available for the public – and future generations – to enjoy. As a result, Alabama’s public lands and waters support increasing recreational opportunities such as fishing, hunting, horseback riding, hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking, camping and wildlife-watching with over 99 percent of Forever Wild acreage also being open to some form of public access,” he said.

Twenty-five years of conservation progress

The Forever Wild Program began in earnest, the following year after its passage. For the next 25 years the program has transformed conservation in Alabama.

Within a generation, 160 tracts have been acquired, protecting over 266,000 acres.

Here is just a sampling of the impact Forever Wild has had on our day-to-day lives.

State Parks and Historical Parks expanded
Anniston
Doug Ghee Accessible Trail at Cheaha State Park – Pat Byington, Bham Now

Because of Forever Wild, ten Alabama State Parks and Alabama Historical Parks have increased in size. They include, Monte Sano, Cathedral Caverns, Guntersville, Desoto, Lake Lurleen, Blue Springs, Frank Johnson State Parks and Old Cahawba, Tannehill and Blakely State Historical Parks. Several expansions kept subdivisions from encroaching on the parks. Additional park expansions provided access for the public or in the case of Blakely and Tannehill Historical Parks, preserved Civil War and 19th century industrial sites.

Recreation and Nature Centers
Birmingham Alabama
Photo via alapark.com

In the early 1990s, mountain bike riding wasn’t a prominent recreational activity, especially on public land. Over the past two decades it has become one of the fastest growing outdoor sports in the country. Through a partnership with IMBA (International Mountain Bike Association) Forever Wild’s Coldwater Mountain near Anniston has built some of the best mountain bike trails in the nation.

Nature Centers, such as Ruffner Mountain, Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, and the Wehle Nature Center in Barbour County serve thousands of people annually. The Turkey Creek swimming hole is a mecca in the summer for people escaping the heat from Birmingham. Last year, an estimated 130,000 people visited the preserve, primarily for its the water falls.

Rare animals and landscapes protected
White-topped pitcher plants and Forever Wild’s Splinter Hill Bog. Photo by Billy Pope.

Alabama is one of the most ecologically diverse states in the nation. For example, we have more kinds of freshwater fish, turtles and mussels than anywhere in North America. Over the past 25 years, Forever Wild has created refuges for some of the rarest creatures on earth like the Red Hill Salamander (Monroe County tract), Red Cockaded Woodpecker, at the Coosa Wildlife Management Area, and the Vermilion darter at Turkey Creek. The Paint Rock area in Northeast Alabama is so diverse, it’s attracting researchers from across the country.

Forever Wild has even saved landscapes that had all but disappeared from sight in Alabama. For example, Forever Wild preserved one of the largest and last remnants of Black Belt Prairie in Old Cahawba near Selma.

Public land for hunting needed
Photo courtesy of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

One of the driving forces to establish a program like Forever Wild, in the early days, was the need for more public hunting lands.

“The amount of public land available to Alabama hunters had been decreasing, mainly due to privately leased lands being withdrawn from the Wildlife Management Area system,” added Conservation Commissioner Blankenship.

Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources wildlife and freshwater fisheries programs and budgets depend nearly entirely on license fees on hunters and anglers, and federal taxes on ammo and fishing equipment. The math was simple. A decrease in public hunting lands results in less hunters. Less hunters purchasing licenses will devastate the Department of Conservation financially. Forever Wild was a godsend. It averted a financial crisis.

Today, 92% of the more than 266,000 acres of Forever Wild’s land is available for public hunting.

Just scratching the surface
Forever Wild
Photo by Bob Farley for Alabamians for Forever Wild.

All these examples just scratch the surface on the impact Forever Wild has on Alabama.

It all started because people from diverse backgrounds sat down and talked to each other. They created a program that changed Alabama for the better.

Back to the two pieces of paper. Phillips asked the participants in the Forever Wild committee to write about their biggest hope and fears.

They confronted both. And Alabama has thrived.

This is the first installment of a three part series on the Forever Wild Program. Our next article will be about the special places throughout the state that have been protected forever due to the program.

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Author: Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.