Despite a 5-fold return on investment, Forever Wild needs your help. See what you can do now.

Forever Wild
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Forever Wild
Fishing in Alabama. Photo courtesy of Department of Conservation and Natural Resources by Matt Ragland

Last year, on the 25th anniversary of the Forever Wild program, a study found that for every $1 invested in land conservation by the Forever Wild program, there is a $5 return on that investment in natural goods and services. That includes benefits such as wildlife habitat, flood control, and clean water.

Imagine investing $200,000 in the purchase of a new house and increasing that investment five-fold, to a million dollars. In a nutshell, that describes the financial value of Forever Wild to the state of Alabama.

The 2017 study was conducted by the Trust for Public Land, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, Conservation Alabama Foundation, Birmingham Audubon and the Conservation Fund. These groups recognized upfront that the $5 return on the $1 investment is likely a conservative estimate because it didn’t include the additional millions of dollars Forever Wild leverages from federal, private, nonprofit sources and key industries that depend on the availability of high-quality protected lands.

Forever Wild
Forever Wild’s Splinter Hill Bog. Photo courtesy of Department of Conservation and Natural Resources by Billy Pope

“Our organizations came together so we could show not only what Forever Wild does to protect our natural resources, but also the economic benefits it brings to Alabama,” Tammy Herrington, Executive Director of Conservation Alabama. “For every dollar invested, $5 is returned to our state in natural goods and services. The tourism benefits and the access to hunting, fishing and wildlife watching are real economic drivers for local communities.”

And it is more than just an academic study.

Roger Mangham, Executive Director of The Nature Conservancy, Alabama Chapter, told Bham Now his personal story.

“Alabama is a state that’s rich in natural resources. Our forests, rivers, wetlands, and coast undergird our state’s economy, especially the rural economies in our state. The return on the state investment in Forever Wild Trust lands are clear.

These lands have clear economic returns but also important intrinsic value that many folks don’t talk about. Earlier this year, I took my young boys deep into the grass flats at the Grand Bay Savanna Complex to stalk tailing redfish in high water. I spent money in local Mobile county shops that day – tackle, fuel, and donuts. I know these lands reduce flooding and mitigate storm surge, which has massive value for our state…and also filter and clean freshwater water before it enters the estuaries – which has economic value. But what I think about most is the smile on my son Cooper’s face after catching his first bull red.”

Forever Wild
Roger Mangham, people monitoring at Grand Bay Savanna. Photo courtesy of Nature Conservancy in Alabama

In this final installment of our three part series about Forever Wild, we are going to examine the economic importance of Forever Wild, why it has been vulnerable in the Alabama legislature, and what citizens can do to protect and support Alabama’s most successful conservation program.

Forever Wild’s role attracting jobs and young talent to Alabama

According to the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), up to 135,000 jobs in Alabama are directly related to the outdoor industry. Moreover, the state of Alabama benefits from over $14 billion in consumer spending, $3.9 billion in wages and salaries and $857 million in state and local tax revenue from the outdoor industry.

Forever Wild
Forever Wild’s Shoal Creek Preserve in Lauderdale County. Photo courtesy of Department of Conservation and Natural Resources by Billy Pope

In a recent Bham Now interview with Mike Goodrich, board member of Alabama Outdoors and the Freshwater Land Trust, Goodrich called the state’s outdoor industry and Forever Wild an “unsung hero” when it comes to economic development.

He noted that programs like Forever Wild can create not only jobs, but attract young talent to the state.

“Our outdoor assets are incredibly under-utilized. We have a beautiful state, and there is no reason why Alabama cannot be an outdoor destination like Arizona, Montana, or Maine. We, as a state, can create more jobs – not less- if we invest in parks, trails and the outdoors. We can attract young professional talent, who want an active outdoor lifestyle,” stated Goodrich.

Stephens Gap Cave. Photo courtesy of Department of Conservation and Natural Resources by David Jarrell

Parks, nature preserves and outdoor resources are recruiting tools. Outdoor recreation can be a key factor in a company’s decision to relocate to Alabama. And, access to nature ranks high on the young professional list when considering job opportunities.

Economist Ray Rasker explained this in his report “Economic Benefits of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.”

“The bulk of the economic value of public lands lies in its ability to attract people — and their businesses — who want to live near protected lands for quality of life reasons,” Rasker wrote in the report.

Locally, Steve Spencer, President of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama added, “As economic development becomes more and more competitive, prospects are looking beyond the standard statistics such as land availability and workforce. More and more states, including Alabama, are paying close attention to qualities such as land conservation and natural resources. States like Alabama are successfully marketing their states’ conservation and natural resources capabilities…think Forever Wild, Alabama Ross Trent Jones golf trail, and the Black Belt Adventures’ effort to promote hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities. Their results are being recognized throughout the state.”

Beating back challenges to Forever Wild
Montgomery Alabama
Photo by: Pat Byington of the Alabama State Capitol

Despite Forever Wild’s economic and conservation success, since the renewal of the Forever Wild Program in 2012, legislation has been introduced almost every year in the Alabama Legislature that would weaken or devastate the program. It is like the statewide renewal of Forever Wild by 75% of Alabamians in November 2012 never happened.

Why has Forever Wild been vulnerable?

Forever Wild’s funding is based on a simple premise. A percentage of the interest from the royalties/revenue generated from oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico pays for Forever Wild. In other words, you take a resource out of the ground, oil and gas, and reinvest it back into protecting and preserving a natural resource.

 

What makes the Forever Wild program vulnerable is the cash-strapped nature of our state government. Forever Wild’s steady, predictable stream of income is an enticing pot of money that an agency in financial trouble can try to tap. Fortunately, for Forever Wild, a constitutional amendment, a vote of the people, is required to amend the program. That means passage of supermajorities are needed in the State House and Senate and then a referendum.

A big legislative task, but it hasn’t stopped legislators from trying.

What you can do for Forever Wild
Forever Wild
Walls of Jericho. Photo courtesy of the Nature Conservancy in Alabama.

When Forever Wild legislation was drafted some 26 years ago, there was one flaw in the bill. No money was set aside to promote and educate people about the program. The constitutional amendment channeled all the monies into the acquisition of land and its stewardship. As a result, unless the properties are connected to the State Park or Wildlife Management Systems, the remaining properties depend on the local community and word of mouth to promote and help maintain Forever Wild properties.

Doug Deaton, Forever Wild’s State Lands Manager summed it up best,

“It is a great program that provides a lot of opportunities to the public. It is for the people. The more people use it, the more people take ownership of it and love it.”

That is where you come in.

Join a Friends group – Friends of Turkey Creek, Coldwater Mountain, Ruffner Mountain
Little River Canyon. Photo courtesy of Department of Conservation and Natural Resources by Russell Brown

The best way to support Forever Wild is to join a local friends group. Locally, in the Birmingham Central Alabama region, we are fortunate to have “friends” groups and non-profit educational organizations set up to be managers and guardians of various Forever Wild properties.

Here is a listing of local groups connected to local Forever Wild properties:

Ruffner Mountain – Forever Wild property makes up about a quarter of the total Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve. A membership organization, Ruffner Mountain, needs volunteers to help on stewardship and education projects.

Volunteers identifying darters at Ruffner Mountain. Photo by Bob Farley, courtesy of Ruffner Mountain

Friends of Turkey Creek – Turkey Creek, about 15 minutes north of downtown Birmingham, is managed by the Southern Environmental Center at Birmingham Southern College. The local Friends of Turkey Creek Nature Preserve supports through fundraising, maintaining trails and the newly built greenhouse that houses native plants.

Northeast Alabama Mountain Biking Association (NEABA) – The guardian of Coldwater Mountain’s world class mountain bike trails, NEABA holds festivals and help maintain trails.

Alabama Hiking Trail Society – According to Deaton, the Alabama Hiking Trail Society has been instrumental in maintaining the Pinhoti Trail system in Coosa County and beyond. Another advocacy group is the Pinhoti Trail Alliance. Most people do not know that the Pinhoti Trail was the Appalachian Trail founder, Benton MacKaye’s, vision of where the Appalachian Trail should begin.

Working locally with city governments and state historic parks
Mountain Biking at Coldwater Mountain. Photo courtesy of the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association

Some of the biggest supporters for local Forever Wild properties are local governmental entities.

For example, the Shelby County Commission partnered with Forever Wild and created Cahaba River Park. Granting access to the infamous Cahaba lilies, this relatively new nature preserve needs volunteers to help build and maintain trails, kiosks and trailheads.

Similar to Shelby County, Tannehill State Historical Park has expanded its boundaries via recent Forever Wild land acquisitions. They need help building new trails and recreation areas.

Purchase a Forever Wild license plate
Forever Wild Car Tag. Graphic courtesy of Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

One additional way you can show your support visibly and financially is by purchasing a Forever Wild license plate. Perhaps one of the state’s most beautiful tags, proceeds go directly toward land acquisition.

14 years to go
Audubon
Birmingham Audubon’s Greg Harber teaching birdwatching. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

As a state constitutionally authorized program, Forever Wild is renewed every 20 years by a vote of the people. It will be up for renewal in 2032.

It is up to all Alabamians over the next decade and half to ensure Forever Wild continues to sustain strong support.

Tammy Herrington reminds Alabamians, keeping Forever Wild takes more that enjoying the land, it takes getting involved.

“The main thing people can do, besides going out and enjoying these lands set aside for our use and enjoyment, is to voice and show their support for the program. When local and statewide elected officials realize the overwhelming support Forever Wild has, they are more likely to continue to back the program.”

Forever Wild’s point person
Walls of Jericho
Walls of Jericho located in the Paint Rock watershed. Photo by Beth Maynor Finch – http://finchconservation.net

Doug Deaton is Forever Wild’s point person for volunteers and educational programs. Let’s say you are interested in organizing a field trip for a school or a local cleanup. Deaton is the contact to get the ball rolling. You can contact him on doug.deaton@dcnr.alabama.gov and 334-242-3484.

Do you have a favorite Forever Wild property? Let us know!
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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.