Tough times call for re-evaluation of Forever Wild

Published 9:19 pm Tuesday, March 8, 2011

With Alabama laying off teachers and state employees as the result of severe budget cuts, it seems only reasonable that lawmakers would proceed with caution before setting aside up to $300 million to purchase more land through Forever Wild — especially since funding for the program would not change until October 2012.

Forever Wild has done a good job of preserving recreational and unique land for future generations. Many farmers and rural landowners were among the first to endorse Forever Wild and have continued to support its mission.

Legislators are currently considering two measures related to Forever Wild. One would reauthorize the program a year early and earmark up to $300 million over the next 20 years to buy more land. A second calls for a year-long study to evaluate the program before committing additional public money.

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When Alabama voters overwhelmingly approved the program in 1992, they did so with the understanding that the conservation and financial needs of the state should be evaluated before reauthorizing the program. There is no reason to rush a reauthorization bill through the Legislature during this session.

None of the land purchased by Forever Wild is in jeopardy of being lost. In fact, as of Sept. 30, the program had $24 million in its stewardship fund for the perpetual care of Forever Wild properties plus $15 million to purchase more land. These funds would ensure the continuation of Forever Wild, regardless of whether additional funding is authorized. Even if the Legislature does not act this year, it could still reauthorize Forever Wild next year without interrupting the flow of new money into the program.

Under current law, Forever Wild receives 10 percent of the investment income from the Alabama Trust Fund, up to $15 million a year. To date, the program has spent about $160 million to purchase more than 220,000 acres statewide, including natural treasures like the Walls of Jericho in Jackson County and a portion of the fragile Mobile-Tensaw Delta in southwest Alabama.

These purchases are a good investment in the future of Alabama. However, it is prudent for the Legislature to study the state’s financial and conservation needs before obligating more money to purchase land.

In Gov. Robert Bentley’s State-of-the-State address, he proposed cutting funds to historical sites and other tourist attractions noting that “they are not as important as providing health care to low income children and elderly or as to keeping State Troopers on the road.”

Before reauthorizing Forever Wild, the Legislature should follow the intent of the original law and use this year to re-evaluate the state’s conservation and recreational needs. At a time when the state is cutting funding for state parks, forest protection and other public property, it makes sense to develop a long-term preservation plan before earmarking as much as $300 million to buy land.

Make no mistake, Forever Wild will continue whether the Legislature acts or not. All the land purchased to date will be preserved, and the program will retain millions of dollars for maintenance and future purchases. In addition, the program will continue to receive 2.5 percent of the investment income from the Alabama Trust Fund.

Now is the time for the Legislature to evaluate Forever Wild. Legislators have a duty to weigh the conservation and financial needs of the state before rushing to reauthorize the program a year before any change in funding would occur.

Contact your legislator today and ask them to support a study to evaluate Forever Wild.

Steve Guy

Director, Forestry and Wildlife

Alabama Farmers Federation