Established in 1992, the Alabama Forever Wild Trust Fund has been considered by many to be one the most successful and popular legislations in more than 25 years.
Conversely, growing choirs of dissenters question the continuation of the program calling it a waste of money and a job-killer.
Reauthorization of the program will on the November 6, 2012, ballot.
Almost a year away and yet a small war has been growing between those who would preserve the program and those who would see its demise.
In 2009 it was reported that the Alabama Farmer Federation was against the renewal of the Forever Wild Trust Fund. There are even some who want to link the Farmer’s Federation with certain so-called Tea Party member who are promoting that the United Nations is involved in the Forever Wild program.
In an earlier version of this story we reported from a 2009 quote that contradicted the current position of The Alabama Farmer’s Federation concerning The Forever Wild Trust Fund.
Earlier this year, the Alabama Farmers Federation raised concerns about Forever Wild purchasing productive farmland and engaging in long-term leases of property where the state does not hold timber or mineral rights. The organization, which was among the groups that supported creation of Forever Wild 20 years ago, recommended the Legislature form a study committee to evaluate the program’s accomplishments and set priorities for the future.
“Although the Legislature chose not to create the study committee, the public hearings led to subsequent discussions among farmers and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Earlier this month, the Forever Wild board of directors approved a resolution that addresses many of the farmers’ concerns,” said Federation Public Relations and Communications Director Jeff Helms. “The resolution provides for creation of a recurring five-year, long-range plan for land preservation, increased public information efforts about Forever Wild properties, the posting of board minutes to a website and a statement emphasizing that productive farmland is a low priority for Forever Wild purchases.”
During its annual meeting this month, the Federation’s voting delegates approved official policy that states the organization will not take a position on the 2012 general election vote to reauthorize Forever Wild.
The Federation was accused of opposing Forever Wild in 2010 due to its support of a comprehensive conservation proposal that would have split funding among Forever Wild, a farmland preservation program and soil and water conservation practices.
“Although the Federation has endorsed a variety of conservation initiatives, it has not wavered in its support of the Forever Wild mission,” Helms said. “We are encouraged that the Forever Wild board of directors has taken steps to ensure the program remains true to its original purpose of preserving unique and environmentally sensitive lands for future generations.”
There are many among Tea Party activist and other groups who believe the program should not be continued for a variety of reasons.
In 1992, the Forever Wild Trust Fund was implemented to purchased lands for general recreation, nature preserves and additions to Wildlife Management Areas and state parks.
Groups such as the Alabama Audubon Society and Ducks Unlimited have been firm supporters of the program. Alabama Audubon Society, in a “call to action” statement to its member, wrote, “In the last 17 years, Forever Wild has protected almost 205,000 acres of pristine and important land in terms of protecting our ecological diversity, wildlife habitats, coastal areas, forests, and wetlands across the state, in addition to ensuring that we have clean drinking water, all without a single dollar of taxpayer money.”
However, other groups are seriously challenging the wisdom and need for this program.
The group Christian Conservatives (www.ccofal.org) ask the question, “In the middle of a recession, should Alabama Taxpayers spend $300 million to purchase more land for so-called conservation efforts, or should the funds be used to build more highways and create thousands of needed jobs in Alabama?”
Speaking at a GOP sponsored event in Talladega, Don Casey of Keepourrights.org and his partner Ken Freeman told the crowd of about 100, that Forever Wild was a United Nations plot to takeover the world. Casey and Freeman as well as other link Forever Wild to the UN and its’ Agenda 21.
According to the United Nations’ written documents, “Agenda 21, is a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which human impacts on the environment.”
Talk show host Glenn Beck put forth a theory that UN Agenda 21 uses “Sustainable Development,” to mean “Centralized Control Over All Of Human Life On Planet Earth.”
On June 15, 2011 speaking on his now-defunct Fox News Glenn Beck show, Beck said, “Reading through the pages [of Agenda 21], it becomes clear ‘sustainable development’ is just a really nice way of saying ‘centralized control over all of human life on planet Earth.’”
Beyond seeking Sustainable Development, Agenda 21 includes broad goals that include combating poverty, changing consumption patterns, promoting health, and reducing private property ownership. There is even a plan for “social justice” that will redistribute wealth.
Beck’s statements have been interpreted by some within the Tea Party movement of Alabama to link the Forever Wild with Agenda 21.
Recently APR was given the opportunity to ask some questions of Greg Lein, Assistant Director Natural Heritage Section of the Alabama State Lands Division of Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
APR: How is Forever Wild funded?
Greg Lein: Forever Wild is funded from interest earned off the natural gas royalties that come from Alabama’s natural gas leases around Mobile Bay, as well as the Forever Wild car tag and occasional donations and federal grants. The primary funding from natural gas royalty payments are deposited in the Alabama Trust Fund, and under the Forever Wild law, 10% of the annual interest earned from the ATF is deposited to Forever Wild’s fund (not to exceed $15,000,000 annually). This is all described under the Forever Wild law itself.
The balance of the ATF’s interest is deposited to cities, counties, and the state’s General Fund. The State Treasurer’s website offers a very good explanation of this process (see http://www.treasury.state.al.us/Content/07ATFpage.htm ). As a consequence, Forever Wild is wisely funded, relying on the reinvestment of revenues from Alabama’s natural gas leases, and not taxes. We often refer to this as “conservation currency,” whereby one depleting natural resource (natural gas) is reinvested in a more permanent one (public land).
The other element of Forever Wild’s funding is that the law provides for 15% of the cost of Forever Wild purchases to be set aside in an interest bearing “stewardship fund” that provides for the perpetual maintenance costs on the land itself. The managers of the land are Conservation Department staff, who are self-funded by the conservation participants (anglers, visitors to state parks, boat registrants, and hunters). No General Fund money is involved, and no taxes are involved in the management of the land.
APR: What would you say are the program’s major accomplishments?
Greg Lein: Forever Wild’s accomplishments are many, but the legacy of public land is certainly the greatest. We also take a lot of pride in the program (known formally as the Forever Wild Land Trust) having operated openly and transparently for 19 years, and succeeding in passing every audit by the Public Examiners Office with no findings. Forever Wild has been responsive to the public’s nominations of potential lands, and worked well in partnering with elected officials and local governments to support regional objectives for securing recreational opportunities and protecting unique watersheds and wildlife habitats. This process creates an investment in Alabama’s public lands legacy, which in turn supports the state’s economy.
Forever Wild has purchased 165,807 acres of permanent land, and another 61,000 acres of land under a 90 plus year recreational lease. These new lands have offered new recreational opportunities for Alabama. They have also helped us keep pace with the loss of 143,000 acres of no-cost lease recreational lands since 1992.
APR: How much tourism is Forever Wild responsible for bringing into the state?
Greg Lein: While we don’t know the exact number associated with visitation to Forever Wild lands, car counters at locations like the Walls of Jericho Tract in Jackson County demonstrate a stable use of about 15,000 visitors annually to that tract’s hiking and horseback riding trails. Most of our Forever Wild lands are embedded within other conservation lands that are part of our State Parks and Wildlife Management Area system, making it difficult to distinguish the exact visitation to just the Forever Wild land. We do know that our State Park’s system hosted 3,000,000 guests during FY2009-2010, and that 625,000 hunting or fishing licenses (participation is actually higher, as youth under 16 and seniors over 65 are not required to purchase licenses, complicating the participant count) were purchased during FY2009-2010, demonstrating activity levels in the major areas of Alabama’s conservation system supported by Forever Wild.
A recent survey performed by the Alabama Tourism Office at the new Forever Wild Field Trial Area in Hale County documented that last year’s visitation for field trials, public fishing, youth hunts, and the physically disabled hunting sites created 35 jobs, generated approximately $189,000 in state taxes, and represented a total expenditure of over $1.8 Million. The survey reflected that most visitors were field trial participants (averaging two individuals per party) who were from out-of-state (76 percent), with the majority of them (93 percent) staying locally in the area surrounding Forever Wild’s Field Trial Area for 3 nights. On average they spent $77 per night on lodging, and $55 per person on food, shopping, and other expenditures. A new mountain biking system schedule to open in 2012 at Forever Wild’s Coldwater Mountain Tract is expected to generate an even greater impact to the Anniston/Oxford area of Calhoun County.
APR: What group would you say uses this preserved land the most?
Greg Lein: Our former Director often said that you can only preserve jellies and jams. Forever Wild is a program that secures public land for outdoor recreation and unique wildlife habitats. It is a dynamic and fluid process that actively involves the annual stewardship of trails, habitats, timber and other natural resource amenities. While we all rely on the clean air, magnificent scenery and clean water produced from Forever Wild lands, the most common group that benefits from these lands are the outdoor recreationists- members of the public who enjoy backpacking, biking, bird watching, canoeing, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, hunting, and general wildlife viewing.
APR: Is there data that shows the impact of Forever Wild as far as
income to the state?
Greg Lein: We do not have any specific studies or data that answers that question. However, when we focus on one well-studied form of outdoor recreation we know from regular tracking that annual hunting activities in Alabama are a $1.4 Billion economic impact (direct annual expenditures for hunting in Alabama account for $847 Million). While we know that every licensed hunter does not utilize public lands like Forever Wild, a recent national survey indicates that 39 percent of hunters in America rely on public land for some form of hunting (keep in mind that western states have vast areas of public land). Local data suggests that about 20 percent of our licensed hunters utilize public hunting land in Alabama. This difference in utilization likely reflects the lack of public hunting land in Alabama (AL ranked 10 out of 15 southereastern states polled regarding acres of state owned public hunting land). Nonetheless, the fact that 20 percent of Alabama’s licensed hunters are relying on 2.2 percent of the land area is astounding (the land area made available for public hunting in the state’s Wildlife Management Area system).
Couple those statistics with the utilization of the recreational lands by members of the public who travel to enjoy backpacking, biking, bird watching, canoeing, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, and general wildlife viewing, and we believe that these lands truly have a positive impact on Alabama’s economy.
APR: How does Forever Wild impact the quality of life enjoyed in Alabama?
Greg Lein: Forever Wild improves the public’s quality of life through the lands and recreational opportunities provided in conjunction with the program. People often think of this in terms of direct benefits such as recreational trails, fishing areas, hunting areas, and the protection of unique wildlife habitats. However, Forever Wild lands also provide numerous indirect benefits from these lands, such as clean air, clean water, watershed protection, scenic viewsheds, locations supporting conservation education programs, buffering for national defense missions, flood and storm buffer areas along waterways, habitat protection for nursery areas supporting coastal fisheries and seafood industries, as well as supporting Alabama’s economy through the numerous forms of recreational tourism. These all roll together as support for the public’s general quality of life.
APR: Why do you think we the voters of Alabama Should approve the re-authorization of the Forever Wild Trust Fund.
Greg Lein: Perhaps the greatest reason is the case many people present to us–why end something as successful as Forever Wild? The successes are well established, many of which have been highlighted in the above questions. However, one additional success that bears mentioning is the demonstration that broad interests can work together to protect Alabama’s unique natural heritage, while also supporting the state’s diverse economy. Instead of an endless stream of environmental problems and conservation failures, we have seen the opposite. Nineteen years of successful conservation, and the proof that Alabama’s government can provide what its citizens’ want most–sound fiscal policy and honoring the commitments made to our people. In this final year of Forever Wild’s funding for land acquisition, we are proud of having served the state in a manner that enhances the public’s quality of life while also enhancing the state’s economy. While these process has been but a small investment in Alabama’s natural heritage, Forever Wild has been a VERY important investment, and one that should be continued.
Lein and many hunters, fishers and outdoor enthusiast do not see the reason for any controversy surrounding Forever Wild, next November the voters will have their say.
Three mental health crisis centers coming to Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville
“Today marks a culture change in Alabama for treatment of individuals with mental illness and substance use disorders,” Mental Health Commissioner Lynn Beshear said.
Gov. Kay Ivey on Wednesday announced an $18 million project to create three new mental health crisis centers to be located in Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville.
These centers, once in operation, will reduce the number of people suffering from mental health crises who are hospitalized or jailed, Ivey said during a press briefing in front of the Capitol Building in Montgomery.
“When these facilities are open and fully staffed, these centers will become a safe haven for people facing mental health challenges,” Ivey said.
Lynn Beshear, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Mental Health, said during the briefing that the centers will provide “recovery based” care with “short term stays of a few hours, or up to a few days, to provide treatment, support, and connection to care in the community.”
“Today marks a culture change in Alabama for treatment of individuals with mental illness and substance use disorders,” Beshear said.
Beshear said AltaPointe Health in Mobile will operate one of the three facilities, and once built it is to serve Mobile, Baldwin, Clarke, Conecuh, Escambia, Monroe and Washington counties with 21 new beds, including 15 temporary observation beds. Altapointe will begin with a temporary space while constructing the new facilities, she said.
Beshear said the Montgomery Area Mental Health Authority is partnering with the East Alabama Mental Health Authority and the Central Alabama Mental Health Authority to serve the 11 counties in Region 3 with 21 new beds, including 10 temporary observation and respite beds.
“The regional crisis center will be located in Montgomery, and will be open to walk-ins and for drop off by law enforcement, first responders and referrals from emergency rooms,” Beshear said.
Wellstone Behavioral Health in Huntsville was selected to open the third center, and will do so at a temporary site while a new facility is being built, with the help of an additional $2.1 million from local governments, Beshear said. That facility will eventually have 39 beds, including 15 for temporary observation and 24 for extended observation.
“There’s not a day that goes by that after-hours care is not an issue in our state,” said Jeremy Blair, CEO of Wellstone Behavioral Health, speaking at the press conference. “And so I applaud the Department of Mental Health and the leaders for their efforts in recognizing that and taking it a step further and funding our efforts here.”
Asked by a reporter why a center wasn’t located in Jefferson County, one of the most populous counties with a great need for such a center, Ivey said those residents will be served in one of the other regions.
“Plans are underway to continue this effort. Today’s beginning, with these three crisis centers, is just the beginning,” Ivey said.
Ivey added that request for proposals were sent out for these three centers and “it was a strong competition for the location of these three crisis centers.”
Alabama House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, said during the briefing that more than a year ago, Ivey asked him what the state should be looking at, and that he replied “we’re failing miserably in mental health.”
Ledbetter said Ivey asked him to take on the challenge of correcting the state’s response to mental health, and a team was created to do just that.
“Working together, today’s announcement will not only change Alabamians lives, but will help to save lives,” Ledbetter said.
Ainsworth returns to work after testing positive for COVID
Ainsworth’s office on Sept. 21 announced he had tested positive earlier that week, having been tested after someone in his Sunday school class tested positive for the disease.
Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth on Wednesday announced that he was returning to work that day and had met public health requirements for quarantining after testing positive for COVID-19 some time last week.
Ainsworth’s office on Sept. 21 announced he had tested positive earlier that week, having been tested after someone in his Sunday school class tested positive for the disease.
“While many have battled with coronavirus, my symptoms never progressed beyond some mild congestion that I usually experience with seasonal allergies,” Ainsworth said in a statement. “During the quarantine period, I participated in several Zoom calls, caught up on some office work, spent some quality time with my family, and completed a number of overdue projects on my farm.”
Members of Ainsworth’s staff who were in close contact with him haven’t tested positive for COVID-19 but will remain in quarantine for a full 14-day period as a precaution, according to a press release from Ainsworth’s office Wednesday.
“Ainsworth once again urges all Alabamians to practice personal responsibility, which may include wearing masks, maintaining social distancing whenever possible, and taking other precautions to lessen chances of exposure to COVID-19,” the press release states.
Ainsworth still disagrees with Gov. Kay Ivey’s statewide mask mandate, he said. According to the release, he considers such orders “a one-size-fits-all governmental overreach that erodes basic freedoms and liberties while removing an individual’s right to make their own health-related choices.”
The wearing of cloth or medical masks has been proven to inhibit the spread of COVID-19 and the more people who wear masks, the better. While not perfect, masks limit the spread of respiratory droplets that may contain infectious virus shed from the nose and mouth of the mask wearer.
It is possible — even likely — for symptomatic, pre-symptomatic and mildly symptomatic people to spread the virus. That’s why it’s important to wear a mask even when you’re not sick.
Cloth masks offer only minimal protection from others who are not masked, meaning that masks are not simply a matter of personal safety but safety of others. Masks are also only effective when worn over both the mouth and the nose. [Here’s a guide on how to wear masks properly.]
Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, told Ivey after she announced the statewide mask order that it was a “brilliant” idea. The order has been credited by Alabama infectious disease experts as having dramatically reduced the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the weeks after the order went into effect.
Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, told APR on Tuesday that from personal observation he is seeing more people not wearing masks, or wearing them improperly, and said the state could dramatically reduce the risk of COVID-19 if the public regularly wore masks and wore them properly.
Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in Alabama on Monday crossed the 1,000 mark for the first time since Aug. 31 — a sign that Alabama may be headed for another peak in hospitalizations as the state prepares for winter and flu season.
Faith in Action Alabama calls on law enforcement to protect voters from harassment
“In these harrowing days it is incumbent upon all of us as citizens and you and your colleagues as law enforcement professionals to do all we can to maintain this right secured by so much courage and sacrifice.”
Nine clergy members from across the state have signed an open letter calling on local and state law enforcement to protect voters against intimidation and harassment at the polls.
The clergy are leaders in Faith in Action Alabama, a regional association of Christian congregations affiliated with the national group Faith in Action, the largest grassroots, faith-based organizing network in the country. It seeks to address a range of issues like gun violence, health care, immigration and voting rights.
This is their letter:
Across our country and here in Alabama, it is being seen that citizens are turning out in record numbers to vote early and by absentee ballots. It is very heartening to see so many of our fellow citizens energized and committed to exercising that most fundamental and critical duty of citizenship, the use of their franchise. As servant leaders of an ecumenical association of nearly 2,000 faith communities across our state we are certainly encouraging our congregants to fulfill this duty either through early, absentee or day of election voting. For us this is not only part of our civic duty, but as people of faith obligation as well.
Unfortunately, it it also largely known that there are forces in our country that are actively, publicly and fervently at work to suppress the votes of some of our fellow citizens. We write to implore you to use the full authority of your office and department to ensure that those who seek to vote, especially on November 3, 2020 are not assailed or intimidated by illegal harassment in their polling places. We believe these threats are pervasive enough and real enough that proactive measures should be in place as citizens come to vote throughout that day. The strong, visible presence of uniformed legitimate law officers will hopefully prevent any attempts at confrontation or intimidation and violence.
The history of our state is marked by the efforts of tens of thousands of Alabamians who marched, protested, brought legal actions, shed their blood and some even gave their lives that every citizen of this state might have full and free access to the ballot box. In these harrowing days it is incumbent upon all of us as citizens and you and your colleagues as law enforcement professionals to do all we can to maintain this right secured by so much courage and sacrifice.
Please be assured of our prayers for you and the men and women of your department who have the awesome responsibility of providing public safety and equal protection under the law for every Alabamian. If we, the members of Faith in Action Alabama’s Clergy Leadership Team, can be of assistance please do not hesitate to call upon us.
Rev. Jeremiah Chester, St. Mark Baptist Church, Huntsville
Rev. David Frazier, Sr., Revelation Missionary Baptist Church, Mobile, and Moderator, Mobile Baptist Sunlight Association
Bishop Teresa Jefferson-Snorton, Fifth Episcopal District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
Bishop Russell Kendrick, Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast
Bishop Seth O. Lartey, Alabama-Florida Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
President Melvin Owens, Alabama State Missionary Baptist Convention
Bishop Harry L. Seawright, Ninth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church
Dr. A.B. Sutton, Jr., Living Stones Temple, Fultondale
Father Manuel Williams, C.R., Resurrection Catholic Missions of the South, Montgomery
Report: Alabama’s Black Belt lags behind state in economic prospects
Black Belt counties lag behind others in economic prospects and investments in businesses.
It took Marquis Forge five years and 18 banks before he and his partner were able to open their company, Eleven86 Water, in Autauga County, just north of the Black Belt, and a report released Tuesday shows how Black Belt counties lag behind others in economic prospects and investments in businesses.
Forge, a former University of Alabama football player, told reporters during a briefing Monday that he considers Autauga County, which borders the Black Belt’s Lowndes County, part of the Black Belt, and said it shouldn’t have been so difficult to access the capital needed to start a business.
The report released Tuesday by the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center titled “Black Belt manufacturing and Economic Prospects” is the last in the center’s Black Belt 2020 series, and found that only four of the state’s 24 Black Belt counties, as defined by the center, are above the statewide average of 22.4 businesses per 1,000 residents, and just one, Montgomery County, was above the 2018 statewide average of personal income of $43,229.
Researchers also found that just three Black Belt counties are above the state’s average in gross domestic product being produced by counties of $45,348.
“To achieve Governor Ivey’s ambitious goal of 500,000 a million more Alabama workers with skills by 2025, all hands have to be ‘on deck.’ It will require higher labor force participation rates, particularly in the Black Belt, where the average is 20 points below the statewide average,” said Stephen Katsinas, director of the university’s Education Policy Center and one of the authors of the report.
“Due to smaller economies of scale, our approaches to education, workforce development, and community building will have to be different to reach Alabama’s Black Belt,” Katsinas continued. “In the longer term, we first must define the Black Belt, because you can’t measure what you can’t define. Then we must do what West Alabama Works is doing–go where the people are to bring hope by connecting them to a well-aligned lifelong learning system that makes work pay.”
Donny Jones, COO of Chamber of Commerce West Alabama and Executive Director of West AlabamaWorks, told reporters Monday that one of the keys to helping the Black Belt will be helping state and Congressional legislators understand the nuances of rural Alabama.
Jones said the state should look at how colleges are graded, and that many smaller colleges don’t get credit for putting students through programs that get them short-term certificates that lead to jobs.
“Those are some of the things on the statewide level that we can really start to work on,” Jones said, adding that they’ve already begun teaching modern manufacturing in Black Belt high schools that gives students college credits toward an associates degree while still in high school.
“I think that’s very important for individuals to understand the impact that we can have in our higher ed and our K-12 system, really works hand in glove to move the needle for workforce development,” Jones said.
Jim Purcell, State Higher Education executive officer of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, told reporters that it’s also important to look at one’s own community and identifying what is “unique and special,” and said he was recently in Autauga County, where he is from, and bought two cases of Eleven86 Water because he remembered how good the water there was.
“I think that’s what you’ve done, is you’ve taken the gift that Autauga’s environment has and enhanced it, so that the people can benefit from it,” Purcell said to Forge. “I think that’s the key.”
Asked what he’d tell state legislators to spur them to make changes so that other entrepreneurs wouldn’t have to struggle as hard as he did to open a business, Forge said he would ask for a clearer path for assistance.
“Instead of digging down through a tunnel with a spoon I would have someone outline the tracks on getting funds and assistance from local, state and the national level, because there are funds out there,” Forge said.
After going to 18 banks to get the financing he needed, he still had to liquify all his assets to make it happen, Forge said.
“How many people are going to do that?” he asked. “We shouldn’t have to do that.”
To read all of the Education Policy Center’s reports on Alabama’s Black Belt, visit here.