Saving Alabama’s special places is a top Forever Wild priority, says Conservation Commissioner

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Forever Wild
Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship adresses press about the Forever Wild expansion of Oak Mountain State Park. (Pat Byington/Bham Now)

There is probably no bigger champion of the Alabama Forever Wild Land Trust Program than Chris Blankenship, the Commissioner of the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR).

Due to his enthusiasm, support and leadership, the program has recently accomplished a wide variety of milestones: 

A Quick Recap

In our first story about the Forever Wild Program—which is considered by many the most successful conservation program in state history—we looked at how the program was created 30 years ago.

The second story looked at the numbers — the amount of acres and tracts purchased and conserved across the state, miles of trails and the number of visitors to nature preserves.  

In this, our third installment about the 30th Anniversary of Forever Wild, we interviewed Commissioner Blankenship about the popular program, the difference it has made in people’s lives and what lies ahead for the next 30 years. 

Why Forever Wild Matters

Forever Wild
Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship adresses press about the expansion of Oak Mountain State Park. (Pat Byington/Bham Now)

Bham Now: Can you tell us why Forever Wild is important here in Alabama?

Commissioner Blankenship: We have so many special places in Alabama, but almost 96% of the land is privately owned. 

So, unless you have a hunting camp or you know the owner of a property, there’s not much opportunity for the public to get outside. In addition to protecting special, very ecologically sensitive places that we just can’t lose in our state, the Forever Wild Program also gives us the opportunity to have places for the public to hike, bike, hunt and fish. It’s needed here in Alabama. 

Having this land set aside for perpetuity for the public is really invaluable. 

Partnerships Work

Forever Wild
Volunteers helping cleanup the Forever Wild tract at Ruffner Mountain. (Ruffner Mountain)

Bham Now:  One of the hallmarks of the Forever Wild Program is partnerships. Can you provide a couple of examples?

Commissioner Blankenship: Sure! How about the expansion of Oak Mountain State Park? 

It was brought to me as an opportunity by The Nature Conservancy not long after I was appointed as Commissioner. I met with different groups around the state and talked about partnerships and things that we could do together. 

At the time, it just seemed unattainable with Shelby County growing like it is, the cost of property per acre in the county and the size of this property—almost 1700 acres. But we made it happen, working with the EBSCO family that owned the property and through conversations and work with partners.

Forever Wild
(Alabama Forever Wild Program)

Same goes with the Shelby County Park on the Cahaba River

We’ve got a couple of thousand acres down there. We’ve got this great partnership with Shelby County. They see the value in protecting green space and blueways in their county because of what it means for the quality of life, as their county develops and those people that are coming there need recreational space.

Find Public Land That Helps Hunters and Anglers

Forever Wild
Family fishing on a Forever Wild tract. (Alabama Forever Wild Program/Facebook)

Bham Now – Can you describe how Forever Wild has made a difference for hunters and anglers?

Commissioner Blankenship– I wanted our Wildlife and Fisheries Division to take a look at public hunting opportunities around the state to see where there was a gap. 

To see if there were places where people that live in those communities would have to drive way out of their way to go find public land to hunt?

One of those areas was Russell County. We also identified Butler, Dallas and Wilcox counties. 

Because we did that, our Wildlife Freshwater Fisheries Division committed to providing some federal dollars that they get for land acquisition for hunting opportunities in those areas, if property was nominated. 

We’ve been able to really stretch the Forever Wild dollars which provides the 25% match, and Wildlife Freshwater Fisheries, the 75% to acquire these properties.

That’s been a great way to triple the Forever Wild dollars and acquire properties over the last five years at a pace that really adds to public land for hunting. 

Preserving Coastal Lands and Delta

Forever Wild
Commissioner Chris Blankenship supporting the Alabama Coastal Foundation oyster recycling program. (Alabama Coastal Foundation)

A native of Dauphin Island, Blankenship genuinely lights up when you talk about Forever Wild and Coastal protection. It is in his DNA. He came up through the ranks of the Department of Conservation working the following jobs:

  • Enforcement officer on the coast for 15-16 years
  • Director of the Marine Resources Division 
  • Deputy Commissioner of Conservation 
  • Elevated by Governor Kay Ivey to Commissioner in August 2017.

Bham Now: Tell us how Forever Wild has impacted Alabama coast and delta?

Commissioner Blankenship: Preserving the coastal lands really started the Forever Wild program in its infancy. They saw a huge opportunity in the Mobile Tensaw Delta—what we call America’s Amazon. 

There’s been about 100,000 acres acquired there. That’s extremely important for access to public lands and for the ecology of our state.

Adding the acquisitions in Grand Bay, Portersville and Heron Bay, Perdido, and Weeks Bay and we have quilted together quite a large area of protected land in the fastest growing area of our state.

Future of Forever Wild

Forever Wild
Sign at the Forever Wild Walls of Jericho tract in Jackson County. (Alabama Forever Wild Program)

What is the future of Forever Wild? Commissioner Blakenship explained to us how Forever Wild is funded and why it is important for the future

Bham Now: Where do you see Forever Wild 30 years from today?

Commissioner Blankenship: it is a very forward thinking and special program. 

People ask me—how much land does the state need for public access or how much land does the public need to own in the state?

I don’t know what that number is. But I can promise you this—we’re nowhere close to where we need to be. As our population grows and more people are enjoying the outdoors, we need public land commensurate with the population. Alabama’s still far behind other states in the amount of land available for public access.

I feel it is my responsibility as commissioner to make the wisest use of those funds and to continue to find those ecologically sensitive and very valuable properties around the state, add land to some of our parks and wildlife management areas and create some new special places by working with the board to make wise use of those funds. 

There’s 10 years left in this authorization. I really think that we’re seeing great use of these funds and making a difference for Alabama that will pay dividends forever. I think showing that value will help us with the reauthorization for another 20 years in 2032.

That is my goal. 

Happy 30th Birthday Forever Wild!

Forever Wild
Turkey Creek in Pinson, Alabama. (Alabama Forever Wild Program/Facebook)

When November 3, 2022 comes around in a few months, you can celebrate Forever Wild’s 30th Birthday. Here are some ideas:

Forever Wild
Forever Wild License plate
  • Visit an Alabama State Park 
  • Support Forever Wild and Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources with a Wildlife Heritage License  
  • Post a photo of a Forever Wild property on social media
  • And keep in mind—the program is up for reauthorization in 10 years

Forever Wild may be turning 30 years old, but for Alabamians, it is a gift that lasts forever.

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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.

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