94 ways to get healthier in Alabama and have fun at the same time

Oak Mountain State Park

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Oak Mountain State Park
View from Oak Mountain State Park. Photo by Linda Cato Wurstner-Oak Mountain State Park

Our forests, rivers and public lands in Alabama are chock full of opportunity for adventure. But, did you know they offer more than a great place to fish, hunt or hike? They actually help you stay healthier! Read on to find out how.

A few years ago, in his groundbreaking book “Last Child in the Woods,” author and nature educator Richard Louv coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder.” The revolutionary term describes how human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors, resulting in higher rates of behavioral problems and obesity.

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

Electronic media, TV and video games have almost completely replaced “playtime outdoors” for our children, according to studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Today, children ages 8 to 18 spend more time (44.5 hours per week) in front of electronic screens than any other activity in their lives except sleeping.

The Japanese launched a national program called shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” in 1982. Forest bathing is simply spending time outdoors amongst nature. The program helped reduce stress, heart disease and obesity among other health issues (check out the 9 Benefits of Forest Bathing).

Now, we know that you are reading this on a screen right now. But after you finish this story, may we suggest a walk in the woods?

Over a thousand parks across Alabama

Ruffner Mountain
Photo courtesy of Ruffner Mountain

In 1965, the U.S. Congress passed and established, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), the most consequential public lands law in United States history.

Over the next 50 plus years, more than 1,000 state and local projects in Alabama were funded and created in nearly every community in the state.

Rob Grant with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources described the LWCF program this way, “Most Alabamians have never heard of this program, but more than likely their parents, siblings, children and friends have directly benefited from it. Since 1965, the LWCF has assisted our state, counties, cities and towns in the purchase of land and development of parks, playgrounds, ballfields, trails, almost every form of public outdoor recreation. LWCF grants built the first park in many communities—then a subsequent LWCF grant enlarged or enhanced it.”

94 Park projects in Jefferson and Shelby counties

Photo courtesy of Freshwater Land Trust

In Jefferson and Shelby Counties alone, 94 local and state parks, greenways and nature preserves have received LWCF funding. Projects funded over the years include land acquisition to create parks, funds to build ballfields, swimming pools and trails and in the case of state parks, campgrounds and cabins.

As we reported in our first installment about the history of public lands in Alabama, all these places belong to ALL OF US.

Let’s explore some of our favorite parks, preserves and greenways in Jefferson and Shelby counties that are part of the list of 94 parks funded by LWCF.

Oak Mountain State Park

Birmingham, Oak Mountain State Park, Wasabi Juan's, holiday entertaining
Take in pristine nature at Alabama’s largest state park. Photo via Oak Mountain State Park’s Facebook page

Here is a question for your next trivia night. Did you know, according to Bhamwiki, that in the 1930s when the National Park Service purchased the 8000 acres creating Oak Mountain State Park, they were thinking about making it a National Park?

Today, our state’s largest State Park unit totals 9,940 acres, Oak Mountain is a recreational wonderland with 50+ miles of trails for people, horses and mountain bikes, lakes for swimming and fishing, waterfalls and even one of our favorite attractions, the Alabama Wildlife Center – a wild animal rehab facility that takes care of over 2000 critters a year.

Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park

Tannehill Historical State Park

You often don’t think of a historical park as a place to take a hike, but Tannehill is full of surprises. One of the birthplaces of Birmingham’s iron and steel industry, the park has received LWCF funds several times over the past 50 years.

Recently, Forever Wild added 553 acres to the park, straddling Jefferson and Bibb counties, which will be dedicated to horseback riding and mountain bikes.

Ruffner Mountain

Photo from Ruffner Mountain’s Facebook page.

Want to amaze your out of town visitors? Inform them that Ruffner Mountain and its 1040 acres is larger than New York City’s Central Park.

Our trail running friends tell us Ruffner has some of the most challenging trails and terrain that make it perfect for avid connoisseurs of the activity. If you ever walk the trails at the end of the day, don’t be surprised seeing a couple of trail runners “getting in” and evening run.

Of course, what makes Ruffner all the more special is its family activities. The land that makes up Ruffner Mountain was cobbled together by LWCF, Forever Wild, the City of Birmingham and yes, even the neighborhood. It is truly treasured by all of us.

East Lake Park

Beautiful East Lake Park in Birmingham, one of the city’s oldest parks. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Stand on the north side of East Lake Park, looking south across the lake, and you can see Ruffner Mountain’s fire tower. That’s how close the two parks are. One of Birmingham’s oldest public parks, East Lake Park was established in 1886, just 14 years after the birth of Birmingham. The place has a long history of attractions ranging from amusement park rides to a petting zoo with a bald eagle.

Cricket in Birmingham. Photo from the Birmingham Thunder Facebook page

LWCF has funded East Lake several times over the years, and today it offers fishing, a Cricket pitch and a quiet trail around the lake for folks to get a morning or evening walk in.

Another one of our favorite places at East Lake Park is island on the lake that provides bird watchers an opportunity to view Wood Ducks, Green Herons, Great Blue Herons, and both Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons. Read this great story about the “Battle of the Island,” written by biologist Scot Duncan in Trek Birmingham.

 

Wald Park, West Homewood Park, Norwood Park and more!

West Homewood Park
West Homewood Park – photo by Hunter Drinkard for Bham Now

Today, you see a great deal of construction and expansion around Wald and West Homewood Parks, but did you know these parks were either got their start or a boost from LWCF since the late 60s/early 70s. Even a old park from the 1920s such as Norwood Park, got revitalized through public lands funding.

Bottomline: In Jefferson County nearly every community has received the gift of public land – places to recreate and get healthy. Here is just a sampling:

Five Mile Greenway in Tarrant, Fultondale Park, Dorothy Spears Park, Hueytown Park, The Highland Golf/Tennis, Debardeleben Park in Bessemer, Grayson Park, Leeds Park, Crestwood Park, Leeds Park and many more.

To find all 94 Parks and preserves in Jefferson and Shelby counties – and projects throughout Alabama and the nation visit this map produced by the Wilderness Society – HERE

Get Outside and Enjoy

Birdwatching. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Alabama cannot afford to be disconnected from nature and the outdoors. At 70.5%, we are the fifth most forested state in the nation. Our public lands, albeit less than 5% of the state’s land, connects us all to forests, wildlife and parks. They are places we can get healthy and escape our screens.

Take a hike or bike ride with a friend, go fishing with a son or daughter, make the most out of Alabama’s parks and public lands. Remember it all belongs to us.

In our third installment, we will provide you ways you can become a steward of Alabama’s public lands.

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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.