Forever Wild area growing

Published 6:28 pm Thursday, September 24, 2009

After hearing reports on two pieces of property added to the Forever Wild portfolio, members of the Forever Wild Board voted last week to pursue the purchase of two more properties deemed as high priorities in its task to preserve some of Alabama’s unique natural areas for public use.

The Board, meeting at Birmingham Southern College, approved the purchase of the Yates Lake West property located in Elmore County. The 3,519-acre tract is less than an hour from Montgomery on Alabama Highway 229. Yates Lake, a 2,500-acre impoundment south of Lake Martin on the Tallapoosa River, offers fishing for bass, bream, crappie, as well as boating. The property is rolling hills divided by creeks and ravines with almost five miles of frontage on the lake. There is a natural stand of timber, including native longleaf pine and mixed hardwood. The woodlands provide excellent habitat for white-tailed deer and wild turkey.

Greg Lein, who oversees the Forever Wild Program for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ State Lands Division, said Forever Wild purchases property for four categories of land use – nature preserves, recreation areas, wildlife management areas (WMAs) and state parks.

“Every nomination is evaluated under all four categories,” Lein said. “That’s how we objectively decide what the land is most suitable for. It’s not unusual for a big property like the Walls of Jericho to be a nature preserve, a recreation area and a WMA. But what’s unusual is when the state parks component makes the short list. We give the board the short list of the top three-scoring properties in each of these four categories. The Yates Lake West property short-listed under all four categories, and that’s never happened before.”

Lein said Yates Lake West is the right size and has the right attributes to do any of the things that Forever Wild is authorized to do.

“While I’m not suggesting there will be another state park built there, if we want to, the land is suitable for that,” he said. “What makes this special is that Wind Creek and some of the other state parks just barely have enough land to host the campgrounds. With (Yates Lake West), you could have a campground on the shoreline and people could bring their horses to a stable and then go into the interior and ride horse trails. You could have hiking trails and mountain biking trails. It’s part of what the Commissioner (Barnett Lawley) has recently referred to as ‘a wilderness park concept.’ This could do that. This land is flat-out gorgeous.

“Part of the magic of Forever Wild is it doesn’t have to do everything. It just secures the property and prevents it from being developed. If a commissioner wants to put in a state park 10 or 15 years from now, there will be a place to do that if they so choose.”

The Board also authorized State Lands to pursue Forest Legacy Program grant opportunities to use toward the possible purchase of the Weil estate of 1,900 acres, which adjoins Yates Lake West. Lein said Alabama has been granted more than $11 million from the Forest Legacy Program in the past eight years.

In an extension of previous action, the Board authorized the purchase of the Red Hills Section 21 tract of 645 acres in Monroe County, which adjoins 1,945 acres the Board voted to purchase at the June meeting.

“This will create a 2,590-acre nature preserve and recreation area that will preserve the Red Hills salamander habitat,” Lein said of the state amphibian that is listed as “threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). “This is another purchase in partnership with The Nature Conservancy. We will probably develop some light recreational activities like hiking trails and the public will be able to hunt that.”

Lein said a USFWS Section 6 Habitat Conservation Program grant will be used to purchase the property. The USFWS makes money available to states for partner projects that will lead to the downlisting of endangered or threatened species. If enough of the habitat of the threatened species is preserved, the species may be taken off the threatened or endangered list.

“That’s good for the state’s economy and the forest industry that uses those type lands,” Lein said. “That salamander habitat has limited what landowners and timber managers could do with their properties. If we can preserve enough of that habitat and it’s de-listed, that means Forever Wild is not only good for preserving some of Alabama’s unique habitat, it also contributes to the state’s economy.”

The purchases of two pieces of property authorized by the Board were closed recently. The Big Swamp Creek addition to the Lowndes WMA will add 1,343 acres to the current 11,118 acres of the WMA for a total of 12,501 acres.

“Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries does the assessment on these type properties,” Lein said. “Their assessment was that it increases the WMA by about 10 percent, which is significant. And, it adds access on the south end of the WMA right there off of Highway 80. That’s always a pretty significant consideration on this size property, especially a wetland property that this WMA is. It was bought by the U.S. Corps of Engineers primarily as mitigation for the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.

“The very nature of wetlands is they’re not easy to access. So when you can enhance public access to a tract like that, it makes it especially attractive. That and the fact it is central Alabama and the Black Belt, where there has been the ongoing dialogue of doing things in the Black Belt.”

Also the Old Cahaba Tract in Dallas County has been added to land acquired by Forever Wild, which will be up for re-authorization in 2012. The 3,020-acre tract adjoins the Old Cahaba State Park and site of Alabama’s state capital in the 1820s.

“This property has frontage on the Cahaba River and it abuts the Old Cahaba State Park,” Lein said. “This was another partnership project with The Nature Conservancy. The property was nominated because of several rare species of prairie plants. Plus it was on the Cahaba River, which is unique because of all the aquatic species that make a home there.”