Happy 30th birthday Forever Wild! How it became a blueprint for conservation in Alabama


Forever Wild
The view from the boardwalk at the Grand Bay Savanna complex of Forever Wild Land Trust properties. (Alabama Forever Wild Program/Facebook)

Alabama has a special birthday coming up. 

The Forever Wild program—the most successful conservation program in state history—is turning 30 years old. 

On election day November 3, 1992, Alabamians voted overwhelmingly to enshrine the Forever Wild program in our constitution. 

After all the counting was done, 83% of the voters said yes to Forever Wild.

Today, a generation later, the Forever Wild program has protected and conserved nearly 285,000 acres statewide, including some of Alabama’s most precious natural wonders in iconic places: 

Forever Wild
Walls of Jericho in Jackson County. (Alabama Forever Wild Program/Facebook)

In total, Forever Wild has preserved 203 tracts of land in 34 counties. Public lands that include nature preserves, wildlife management areas, additions to state parks, – all these are protected today and into the future… forever wild.

In this—the first installment of a three-part series of stories celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Forever Wild—we will learn how an unlikely committee of rivals convened by the governor put aside their differences and helped draft the law. 

Why Forever Wild?

Birmingham Alabama
Turkey Creek Nature Preserve entrance.( Pat Byington/ Bham Now)

In the early 1990s, Alabama had a problem. 

We had the least amount of public land set aside for conservation and wildlife in the entire South. At the time, the state had no plans or programs to expand parks, nature preserves and wildlife areas. 

“There were a lot of compelling reasons why multiple groups came together to support creating the program,” explained Greg Lein, who worked in the early years of the Forever Wild program and is now the Director of Alabama State Parks.

Forever Wild
Forever Wild’s Splinter Hill Bog. (Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources/ Billy Pope)

“You had public hunting land that was being lost within the Wildlife Management System. You had unique habitats that people wanted to see protected and properly managed. Outdoor recreational needs that weren’t being met by the existing public lands. All those things, you rolled them all together and it brought up a broad group of supporters together to support the legislation and the public’s vote.”

Because there was a need, Republican Governor Guy Hunt and Commissioner of Conservation Jim Martin established a committee of 33 Alabamians from all walks of life to consider establishing a new land conservation program for the state. 

A Blueprint—Discovering Alabama Host Doug Phillips

Forever Wild
Discovering Alabama’s Doug Phillips. (Discovering Alabama/Facebook)

It was a room full of rivals. 

Never before had such a diverse group of natural resource special interests been convened in Alabama, by the governor no less, with one goal – to hammer out a public lands bill.  

Everyone was there—Alabama Power, Sierra Club, Alabama Chapter, Alabama Forestry Association, ALFA Insurance, Birmingham Audubon, Alabama League of Municipalities and many more. 

It was a polarized bunch.

The person given the task to facilitate the committee was Doug Phillips, the popular host of the Alabama Public Television program Discovering Alabama

In a recent interview, Phillips described to us the blueprint he used to successfully facilitate this group. 

“I had told Commissioner Martin that this kind of effort had failed in the past, because it’s run by discussion and not facilitation. We needed a diverse group of stakeholders at the table. There were going to be ground rules. They had to agree to stay at the table and send the ringleaders of their groups, because this can be a difficult process.” 

From No Trust to Consensus

The group met regularly for about a year. One of the secret ingredients Commissioner Martin deployed to build trust amongst the members was the use of the State Parks. 

Every meeting began early in the morning.  As a result, most committee members were forced to spend the night at one of the State Park lodges. As one member of the committee told Bham Now, encouraging everyone to spend the night at the lodge forced them to break bread together and learn about each other as well as their friends and families.

Partnerships and alliances were formed.

“I remember the day when the light bulb came on for all those various stakeholders on our committee,” said Phillips. They realized that this was not something where they needed to be throwing rocks at each other.  This was really about their children and their grandchildren’s future.”

The Birmingham News remarked in a June 22, 1991 Editorial titled “It’s Our Land”: 

“Any time groups as diverse as the Alabama Conservancy, National Rifle Association, Business Council, Sierra Club and Alabama Forestry Commission can put aside differences and work together on the same bill, it must be a pretty special bill.”

Phillips added, “I applaud those folks on the Forever Wild committee for hanging in and doing something that has historically been almost impossible in Alabama.”

( I was lucky to attend that committee’s meetings, and had a front row seat to see the team come together. My job at the time was the Executive Director at Alabama Conservancy, but the job at hand – pulling Forever Wild together – felt even bigger. Sure glad to see where this has gone, for the past thirty years.)

Fast Forward 20 Years Later

Forever Wild
Ruffner Mountain in Birmingham. One-third of Ruffner is Forever Wild property. (Ruffner Mountain)

Of course, the rest is history.  Led by Anniston’s State Senator Doug Ghee and Representative Jim Campbell, the legislation passed with the needed 3/5 majority to place it on the November 3, 1992 ballot as a state constitutional amendment.

In the amendment, the law was to sunset in 2012—20 years after its passage. Supported by almost the same coalition as 20 years earlier, Alabama voters approved a 20-year extension to the Forever Wild Program. This time, 75% of voters supported the measure.

“The same group that was very instrumental in the formation and the success of the legislation back in 1992, was the same group that came forward for reauthorization in 2012. It shows that leap of faith in the beginning—the concept of multiple-use management on our property proved viable,” concluded Patti McCurdy, Director of the State Lands Division at Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. 

Next Up

Forever Wild
Forever Wild Belcher Property that is now a part of Oak Mountain State Park. (Pat Byington/Bham Now)

For the second installment celebrating Forever Wild’s 30th year – we are going to look at the “numbers.”  How many people visit Forever lands? Where is the nearest Forever Wild property? Why does it matter?

Join us in the celebration.

Sponsored by:

Pat Byington
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.

Articles: 2468