Since Alabama was primarily a rural, live-off-the-land state, most had access to free or low-cost areas they could hunt, whether it was land of their own, or land of a friend or neighbor. But as the economic and physical landscape of Alabama has changed to industry and technology-based business, and the economic value of private hunting leases has grown, a positive aspect for landowners, ready access to free or low-cost hunting lands, has declined for many.
Fortunately, the hunting tradition continues in Alabama. Some residents have inherited or own family lands where they enjoy hunting. Others purchase or lease lands solely for hunting, or are fortunate to know a friend or neighbor who allows them to hunt their property. Still others hunt at one of the many private or public hunting lodges throughout the state. Hunting is still very much alive in Alabama.
But for those who do not have access to private lands or cannot afford to join or pay to hunt at a lodge or club, options are limited. And the current economic climate has increased the number of people who fall in this category. For these people, public-access lands available for hunting provide the opportunity for them to continue the hunting tradition. For some, it is the only place they have the opportunity to supplement their food supply with wild game.
Protected lands with public access are available in Alabama, and many provide public hunting opportunities. However, Alabama pales in comparison to other Southern states with only 4 percent of our land base falling in the protected category. Florida has 21.23 percent of its total land area protected, Tennessee has 7.25 percent protected, Georgia has 6.99 percent, Mississippi has 5.95 percent, Kentucky has 6.07 percent, South Carolina has 7.07 percent, North Carolina has 9.03 percent, and Virginia has 9.87 percent.
Thanks to the Forever Wild program, Alabama has been working to address the declining public hunting land trend and the supply of public access lands available to our residents. Since its inception in 1992, Forever Wild has secured approximately 200,000 acres of land in Alabama. Virtually 100 percent of those lands provide public access, and almost 90 percent of those lands are available for public hunting.
More than 50,000 of these acres replaced other public hunting lands that were lost. At the same time, these purchases protect a small portion of the incredible ecological diversity of our state. By making this land available for public use to hunters, anglers, bird enthusiasts, hikers or others who want to enjoy Alabama’s great outdoors, Forever Wild has made great strides in protecting the legacy of Alabama hunting and making the time-honored tradition available to all residents, regardless of income or access to private lands.
The constitutional amendment that created Forever Wild in 1992 garnered 83 percent of the public’s vote. Its popularity among Alabamians is higher now than it was in 1992. However, Forever Wild as we know it will expire in 2012 if it is not reauthorized by the Alabama Legislature. Whether you are a hunter, angler, hiker, birdwatcher or an outdoor enthusiast, we must make reauthorizing Forever Wild one of the top priorities for our next session of the Legislature.
The Legislature can accomplish this without utilizing tax dollars. Forever Wild is funded from 10 percent of the earnings off of Alabama’s offshore oil and gas revenues that are placed in the Alabama Trust Fund. Forever Wild represents taking a 10 percent tithe from the earnings generated by the use of a natural resource and reinvesting that tithe back into a natural resource that also provides public access to our citizens so they can enjoy it.
By reauthorizing Forever Wild as-is, we will insure that an ample supply of public-access lands is available for generations to come and, at the same time, insure that many of the outdoor traditions that have made us who we are continue.
Tim L. Gothard is executive director of the Alabama Wildlife Federation.