At the August 2022 Forever Wild Board of Trustees Meeting in Oxford, Alabama, Chris Blankenship—Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR)—announced a major milestone for the program.
According to the Department’s calculations, 92% of Alabama’s population lives within 25 miles of a Forever Wild property. If you extend that number to within 50 miles, the number of Alabama’s citizens who live near a Forever Wild preserve or tract of land grows to 99.8%.
In our first story about Forever Wild’s 30th Anniversary, we remembered how a diverse group of organizations coalesced to pass one of the most important conservation measures in Alabama history.
In this—our second installment—we look at what Forever Wild has accomplished over the years and why it matters.
After the Election in 1992
When Alabama voters passed Forever Wild three decades ago, people believed the new program would immediately begin purchasing natural wonders across the state.
Not so, according to Greg Lein, Alabama’s current State Parks Director, who worked for the State on Forever Wild from the get-go.
“Initially, it was kind of a slow beginning in terms of properties that were nominated and evaluated. There were some people who thought we could just go buy the Mobile Tensaw Delta. That’s not really how it all worked. You needed people nominating specific pieces of property, so that a dialogue could take place with the landowner. Once it was established that they were willing to consider selling the properties, staff could then properly evaluate it and make recommendations to the board.
That was an interesting time, seeing some momentum build. And then it really took off.”
The Numbers and Locations
And take off it did.
Special to Bham Now, the Department of Conservation tallied up several statistics, numbers and fun facts about the program.
Since 1992, the Alabama Forever Wild Land Trust has protected 284,457 acres statewide.
There are 203 tracts across 34 of Alabama’s 67 Counties.
Below is a list of some of the properties. Visit here for more details on each.
Inside the Numbers:
243,561 acres are within the Wildlife Management Area (WMA)/Community Hunting Area system. These are places like the William R. Ireland, Sr.—Cahaba River Wildlife Management Area (WMA), Lauderdale and Freedom Hills WMA and many more.
Here is a 2017 fact sheet about the WMA system and how it works.
36,645 acres are managed by ADCNR State Lands Division as nature preserves or recreation areas (19,950 acres of the nature preserves provide for hunting). Some of the nature preserves throughout the state include:
- Ruffner Mountain
- Cahaba River—Shelby County Park
- Turkey Creek Nature Preserve
- Weeks Bay Reserve in Baldwin County
- Red Hills Complex in Monroe County
- Walls of Jericho in Jackson County
- Forever Wild Dothan Park
- Coldwater Mountain in Calhoun County
- And many more
4,251 acres within the Alabama State Park system—This number may seem small, but in all cases they are critical expansions of the State Park system. Many of the additions protect the parks from encroaching suburbs. These include expansions to Oak Mountain State Park and Monte Sano State Park.
For example, the recently purchased 1611 acre Belcher Tract adjacent to Oak Mountain State Park has been lauded by conservationists.
“Why is this important? On the one hand, you have the protection of the viewshed from King’s Chair, the valley down below. On the other hand, it will protect that ridgeline so you don’t have development over the top of the park.” explained Mitch Reid with The Nature Conservancy Alabama Chapter.
Trail, Trail, Trails
Recreational opportunities abound on Forever Wild lands.
For example, the mountain bike trails on Forever Wild-owned Coldwater Mountain in Calhoun County are considered some of the best in the country. Several parts of the Pinhoti Trail, the “spur” to one of the world’s most famous paths, the Appalachian Trail, intersect Forever Wild properties.
How many public trails do we have on Forever Wild tracts of land?
Here are the numbers:
- 390 miles of multi-use trail
- 173 miles of canoe trail
- 77 miles of hiking trail
- 47 miles of mountain biking trail
- 39 miles of horseback riding trail
Most Visited Forever Wild Lands
It is difficult to nail down the exact number of visits to most Forever Wild properties. With 200+ tracts, we do know thousands of people are hiking, hunting, fishing, canoeing, birdwatching or just enjoying nature.
Here is a sampling of the annual number of visitors at just three popular sites.
- Turkey Creek Nature Preserve—100,000+
- Forever Wild Trails – Dothan —between 50,000-60,000
- Walls of Jericho in Jackson County—about 8,000 visitors a year each year.
Additional Fun Facts
For fans of Alabama’s Historical State Parks, Forever Wild has expanded four parks since its inception:
And, to truly make a public WMA, preserve or recreation area open and accessible, you need parking. As a result, there are 52 parking lots on Forever Wild land built and maintained by ADCNR to enhance access to the properties.
What a list. Want to learn more? We recommend you explore Forever Wild’s website, which has descriptions about every tract.
But, who pays for it?
The Forever Wild program is not taxpayer funded. So how is all this made possible?
Funding for the Forever Wild Land Trust (FWLT) is generated by the interest earned from offshore natural gas royalties deposited into the Alabama Trust Fund. The FWLT receives 10 percent of the distributed interest, capped at $15 million for any given year.
These funds will be available until 2032. After that year, the voters of Alabama can decide whether to extend the funding by a referendum.
When Forever Wild was on the ballot as a constitutional amendment in 1992 and 2012, the voters were promised the State Lands Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources would acquire lands for recreational areas, nature preserves, wildlife management areas and additions to State Parks.
Along with its own funds, the Forever Wild Program has also leveraged an additional $128,149,020 ($128M) in grant awards and other funding over the past three decades.
These are primarily federal grant programs. They include:
- Land Water Conservation Fund—a fund used to create parks and nature preserves
- Forest Legacy Program—a fund that protects forests
- RESTORE Act—a fund set up after the BP Oil spill to purchase coastal habitat/lands
- Pitman Robertson Wildlife Grants—fund used to save public hunting and fishing lands
By using Forever Wild funds as a “match”, the state has been able to purchase tens of thousands of additional acres of land.
What Makes the Program Forever? A Stewardship Fund
What ensures the Forever Wild lands will be held in the public trust and steward in perpetuity? In other words—forever?
Forever Wild sets aside a significant amount of monies into a stewardship fund.
“Those that formed this program had the foresight to set up it up in such a way that when the board decides to make a purchase, they can’t make the purchase, unless in addition to having enough money in the account to cover the appraised value, they also have enough money to add that 15% of the appraised value into stewardship,” Patti McCurdy, Director of the State Lands Division described to Bham Now. “That stewardship fund is there in perpetuity, to provide the program the ability to be good stewards of the acres that it acquires.”
For our third story in the series, we have a treat. We interviewed Chris Blakenship, the Commissioner of Conservation. We will share what Blankenship thinks about the Forever Wild program and the difference it has made in people’s lives. More importantly, he will tell us what lies ahead for the next 30 years.
Have you ever visited a Forever Wild property in Alabama? Tell us about it on social media by tagging us at @bhamnow