Montgomery, Ala. (AP) — Alabama voters will decide next month whether to continue a 20-year-old program that has allowed the state to buy 220,000 acres of public land to be used for hunting, fishing, birding and other activities.
The Nov. 6 ballot represents the second time Alabama residents have been asked to vote on Forever Wild. The first was in 1992 when the state was authorized to buy wilderness lands.
Forever Wild was approved with 83 percent of votes in the 1992 referendum and has secured more than 220,000 acres for long-term public use. It uses earnings from oil and gas revenue in the Alabama Trust Fund and does not take funds from the General Fund or education budgets. Former state conservation commissioner Barnett Lawley said the program has allowed the state to buy lands for uses ranging from birding to field dog competitions.
Supporters of the referendum include environmental groups and hunters. There has been very little organized opposition to the Forever Wild extension, but some critics question whether Alabama should be buying more public land during a funding crisis that has caused some state workers to be laid off.
Mike Crow, president of the Montgomery Retriever Club, said national field trials for retrievers are being held this year on the old Department of Corrections Cattle Ranch near Greensboro, land that was obtained through Forever Wild.
"It's one of the best properties to hold the field trials as far as retrievers are concerned," Crow said. He said the rolling terrain, tree and brush makes it an ideal place for the dogs to show off their skills. He said the event is an example of how Forever Wild helps economic development, saying that many motels with a 100-mile radius of Greensboro are reporting they are booked for the weekend of the national trials, Oct. 20-21.
When a bill to reauthorize Forever Wild first came up in the Senate this year, Republican Sen. Gerald Dial of Lineville opposed the effort and led a filibuster against the bill.
Dial said he mostly fought the bill because it originally did not contain a provision calling for a statewide vote. The Legislature later passed a version of the measure that included a statewide referendum.
Dial said he was also concerned that taking large chunks of privately owned land and making it public would take it off the tax rolls at a time when the state and local communities need more tax revenue.
The Alabama Farmer's Federation has not taken a position and remains neutral on the amendment, said spokesman Jeff Helms.
Lawley, who was the chairman of the Forever Wild board during the 12 years he was conservation commissioner, said Forever Wild has obtained some of the most pristine land in Alabama, including "the Walls of Jericho," a canyon and rock formation in Jackson County near the Alabama-Tennessee line.
"This is a huge asset for Alabama to be able to do this," Lawley said.
The Forever Wild properties include land in extreme rural portions of the state, such as the "Walls of Jericho," but also land at Ruffner Mountain, a wilderness area inside the city limits of Alabama's largest city, Birmingham.
The sponsor of the amendment in the House, Republican Rep. Randy Davis of Daphne, said Forever Wild has exposed Alabama residents to sports such as bird watching and kayaking.
"We didn't use to talk about kayakers," Davis said.