6 ways you can protect Alabama’s public lands including becoming a Wilderness Ranger

Sipsey Wilderness Big Tree

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Sipsey Wilderness Big Tree
The “Big Tree” in the Sipsey Wilderness. Photo credit: Tony Barber

This past December 2018, heavy rains and winds blew down a large pine tree on top of the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve greenhouse. Constructed only a couple of years ago, the purpose of the greenhouse was to grow native trees and flora and plant them within Forever Wild’s Turkey Creek Nature Preserve. Its untimely destruction was a huge setback for the preserve financially and ecologically.

Fallen tree destroys the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve greenhouse. Photo by Charles Yeager

Fast forward to late February 2019. As a a result of volunteers and donors acting quickly, the Preserve has started erecting a new greenhouse. In less than three short months, the greenhouse is over halfway reconstructed and the funds needed to restore the greenhouse have been secured.

Restoration of the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve greenhouse. Photo from Turkey Creek Nature Preserve Facebook page

That’s how stewardship of our public lands work.

Public lands belong to us

Partnership members, Patti Pennington (CAWACO RC&D Council), Carlee Sanford (Ruffner Mountain), Jamie Nobles (Ruffner Mountain), Francesca Gross (The Nature Conservancy). Photo from Pat Byington for Bham Now

Whether its building trails, planting trees, picking up litter, raising funds or re-building a greenhouse, Alabama’s approximately 1.5 million acres of public lands – the National Forests, National Wildlife Refuges, state wildlife management areas, state and local parks and nature preserves belong to all of us and need our help.

Our first two stories examined the history of public lands in Birmingham and their impact on people’s health. In this, our final installment about Alabama’s Public Lands, we will explore the many ways you can help take care of your public lands, may it be the local park down the street or National Forest miles away.

Let’s get started.

1) Volunteer. Yes, you!

Planting native trees at East Lake Park. Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

Volunteers are Priceless

There is an old saying in the volunteer world:

“Volunteers don’t get paid, not because they’re worthless, but because they’re priceless.”

Local preserves and parks operated by non-profits

Birmingham, Turkey Creek Nature Preserve
Photo via Turkey Creek Nature Preserve’s Facebook page.

Places like Ruffner Mountain, Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, Birmingham Botanical Gardens, and Red Mountain Park are publicly owned, but operated by 501 c-3 nonprofit organizations. That means each depends on volunteers and the generous support from the community to survive.

Their volunteer needs may include – trail maintenance, land stewardship, nature educators, board members, donations and even some security.

Building the Ruffner Mountain Greenhouse. Photo courtesy of Ruffner Mountain.

How do you become a volunteer? Simple. Reach out to them online or picking up the phone. Here are links to their contacts.

Ruffner Mountain
Turkey Creek Nature Preserve
Birmingham Botanical Gardens
Red Mountain Park

State Park volunteers needed

Photo via Oak Mountain State Park

Birmingham is surrounded by some of the Alabama’s loveliest state parks, all within 60-75 miles. Obviously, you have got the largest park in the state, Oak Mountain State Park – but don’t forget Tannehill Historical State Park, Rickwood Caverns State Park, Cheaha State Park and Lake Guntersville State Park.

How do you volunteer for the State Parks? Apply directly to the Alabama State Parks Volunteers In Parks (VIP) program – HERE.

Want to do more than just volunteer? Purchase a Alabama State Parks Gift Card or support the Parks for Patriots program.

2) Become a Wilderness Ranger

Wild South Volunteer Wilderness Rangers. Photo credit: Tony Barber Photography, from the Wild South Facebook page

Who doesn’t want to become a Wilderness Ranger?

For years, Wild South has been recruiting, training and deploying volunteer “Wilderness Rangers” into Alabama’s three National Forest wilderness areas – the Sipsey, Cheaha and Dugger Mountain Wildernesses.

These highly trained volunteers help educate visitors and monitor the trails within wilderness areas.

Photo of two young students pulling privet in the Bankhead National Forest. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Along with the Ranger program, Wild South organizes Helping Hands Work Days. This program enlists volunteers of all ages to tackle various Forest Service stewardship initiatives such as Chinese privet removal from the Bankhead and Talladega National Forests.

If you love the majesty of Alabama’s National Forests, this is the best way to “give back.”

Contact Wild South’s Outreach Coordinator, Janice Barrett, at janice@wildsouth.org or 256-974-6166, for details.

3) Adopt a hiking and/or bike trail

Freshwater Land Trust
Leadership of Dynamite Hill-Smithfield Land Trust. They were the first organization to adopt a trail this spring and have completed a couple of very impactful cleanups on their adopted trail, Enon Ridge. Photo courtesy of Freshwater Land Trust.

The Freshwater Land Trust is in the midst of building the 750 mile Red Rock Trail System throughout Jefferson County. Once completed, our community will have one of the most comprehensive public recreational trail systems in the nation. Since its inception in 2010, over 100 miles has been secured. One of the key ingredients needed to make the Red Rock Trail System work will be a successful “Adopt a Trail” Program. Civic groups, school clubs and even individuals can take on the stewardship of a mile or two.

Birmingham, Alabama, Dynamite Hill-Smithfield Community Land Trust, Enon Ridge Trail, Adopt-A-Trail, Freshwater Land Trust
Dynamite Hill-Smithfield Community Land Trust adopted Enon Ridge Trail as part of the Freshwater Land Trust’s Adopt-A-Trail program. Photo via Freshwater Land Trust’s website

The Freshwater Land Trust welcomes all comers. Click on this link and learn the adoption process.

If building and maintaining hiking and bike trails are your passion, there are numerous groups you can join.

Want to hike and advocate for a statewide hiking trail system? The Alabama Hiking Trail Society is one of the leading organizations. Want to connect up with the Appalachian Trail from Alabama? Join the Pinhoti Trail Alliance.

For the mountain bikers out there check out Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedalers (BUMP) the group that establishes and maintains bike trails at Oak Mountain State Park and Tannehill Historical State Park.

Mountain Biking at Coldwater Mountain. Photo courtesy of the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association

A few miles east, connect with the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association, guardians of the bike trails on Forever Wild’s Coldwater Mountain, a nationally acclaimed mountain bike course.

4) Support local ‘Friends’ groups

Entrance to Avondale Park. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Birmingham has a number of “Friends” groups supporting its parks. This is real grassroots work and perhaps the most rewarding. For example, imagine what Avondale Park would look like today, if it did not have the Friends of Avondale Park championing its cause? Here are just a few of Birmingham’s “friends” park groups.

Friends of Avondale Park
Friends of Dynamite Hill
Friends of George Ward Park
Friends of East Lake Park

Need to find or start a local Friend of a Park group? Contact Birmingham Parks and Recreation’s Stanley Robinson at Stanley.Robinson@Birminghamal.gov or 254-2699.

5) Buy a Heritage license

Birmingham, Oak Mountain State Park, fishing in Birmingham
Photo via Oak Mountain State Park.

One additional way you can support public lands near Birmingham is the purchase of a Wildlife Heritage License. Created as a way to support non-game wildlife activities on Alabama’s Wildlife Management Areas and state lakes, the Heritage License supports stewardship activities on local WMA’s such as the William Ireland, Sr. – Cahaba River Wildlife Management Area.

6) Purchase a Forever Wild car tag

Forever Wild Car Tag. Graphic courtesy of Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

One of the most successful conservation programs in state history, Forever Wild has protected over 300,000 acres of public land in 27 years. About a decade into the program, the board established a state car tag to raise stewardship funds. A great way to support conservation, $41 out of every $50 donated to purchase a tag helps maintain this stellar program that has expanded state parks, created nature preserves and wildlife management areas.

Here are the directions on how you can purchase a tag.

Get involved and make a difference

Volunteers removing invasive plants from the stream-banks along Village Creek in East Lake Park. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Now, more than ever, Alabama public lands need champions. Whether it’s pulling privet, adopting and maintaining a trail or re-building a greenhouse – “This Land is Our Land.”

What did we miss? Let us know how you are involved.

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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.