Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Alabama's Endangered Forever Wild Program

I'm all for preserving green space, not just natural areas but also agricultural lands threatened by sprawl. We need to figure out a way to do both, but limited conservation dollars are almost always best spent on natural functioning ecosystems before they are degraded.

I attended the very first Forever Wild meeting at Oak Mountain State Park back in 1992, after 83% of the voters statewide overwhelmingly approved the program. I was with The Nature Conservancy's Alabama Natural Heritage Program which in those days was housed in the ADCNR State Lands Division, and part of our job was to rank nominated sites for acquisition. I recall the excitement in the air as we looked forward to what the next 20 years (the life of the legislation) would bring. Eighteen years and 209,000 acres later, there's much to be pleased with, but so much more to be done. Frankly, the program has been underfunded to do what has really been needed. As Greg Lien of the Lands Division recently said, "We could purchase land at an identical pace for another 20 years and I know we would not have purchased too much land for the citizens of Alabama."

Greg is so right. Countless precious, unique, and absolutely irreplaceable natural and recreational lands across Alabama are being lost each year to development, intensive silviculture, and agriculture. We are nowhere near where we need to be in preserving land. But with the program coming up for renewal in 2012, politically powerful ALFA is suggesting that Forever Wild's protection of six tenths of one percent of the state is enough, and they want the money that's been funding public land acquisition to go toward paying farmers not to develop their private lands.

I recall then-ADCNR Commissioner Jim Martin telling the attendees of that first Forever Wild meeting that politics would never enter into the way the program was run, and indeed there have been no scandals or misspent funds in these 18 years. But with the program coming up for renewal, politics will determine whether the program continues (or is compromised). Legislators need to hear from their constituents on this critically important issue.

Fortunately, the state's newspapers have not been silent on this:

Mobile Press-Register: Leave Forever Wild Forever Out of Politics
"Legislators who understand the environmental and economic value of preserving land for the public should move quickly in the upcoming session to ensure that no special interests destroy Forever Wild and that voters get the chance to again express their support for its mission."
Montgomery Advertiser: Don't Allow Forever Wild to Lapse
"The Alabama Legislature should renew the Forever Wild program, one of the most successful efforts to protect natural resources for public use in the nation. The program must be reauthorized by the Legislature by 2012 or it will expire."

Anniston Star: Hands Off Forever Wild
"When comparing Alabama's efforts to what other states have done, the state is far behind. Consider Alabama's neighbors. Mississippi has permanently protected nearly 6 percent of its land. Tennessee, 7.25 percent. Georgia, 6.99 percent. Florida, more than 21 percent.

And Alabama? Only more than 4 percent.

We have a long way to go before Forever Wild's mission will be served."

Florence Times Daily: Forever Wild Loses
"Forever Wild has performed admirably since its inception by operating scandal-free and never paying more than the appraised value for property. Tens of thousands of people visit the properties every year. The program is government at its best."

Huntsville Times: Forever Wild Land Preservation Program Faces Sunset
"Forever Wild can't continue if its resources are gutted for other purposes. Forever Wild's allocations off trust fund's interest have also wildly fluctuated with the economy ($400,000 in 2008; $10 million in 2007.) The Alabama Trust Fund should be absolutely the last resort if raiding it would jeopardize this vital public land program."

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