Of course, it’s not a song title. It’s more like a prayer, or a promise – a promise made by the people of Alabama to themselves, and to their children and grandchildren, that they will set apart and protect some of the many special places, the ecologically sensitive places, in this state.
A stunning 83 percent of Alabama’s voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1992 to establish Forever Wild, the state’s land acquisition program. Funded by interest earned on money the state receives from offshore gas and oil leases, Forever Wild has purchased 58 tracts and over 130,000 acres of land for recreation, nature preserves, and other purposes.
“It’s the one program in our state that truly protects the special places in our state, the natural areas,” according to Pat Byington, senior associate with the Wilderness Society and former Forever Wild board member. “And let’s be frank, these areas are disappearing. Our population is growing. We’re losing more and more of these special places everyday.”
Forever Wild happened because James D. Martin, an avid outdoorsman and head of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) under Gov. Guy Hunt, created a committee to explore a land program and filled it with both business people and environmentalists, private citizens and politicians, scientists and sportsman. This diversity allowed the committee, after nine months of work, to craft a proposal that would satisfy these constituencies, as well as the legislature and the largely conservative voters of Alabama. No new taxes were needed, no one’s land would be taken without their consent, and the annual program costs were capped at $15 million.
Forever Wild seems to have been effective for several reasons. For one thing, it makes the process of land acquisition easier. “Many southern states don’t have a dedicated source of money for this purpose,” says Chris Oberholster, director of the Nature Conservancy of Alabama. “For example, Georgia, while they do occasionally have funding available to buy land, it’s more unpredictable, so it’s much more difficult to get land purchased.”
Having a consistent source of funding also makes it easier to apply for matching federal funds, according to Oberholster. “There’s all this money available from the Feds, but you have to put something up yourself,” he says. “It shows that you value your heritage.”
Forever Wild makes it easier for different public and private groups to work together to acquire land. According to Tim Gothard, executive director of the Alabama Wildlife Federation, in a recent e-mail, Forever Wild “has served as a venue through which [AWF] can provide service, support, and assistance to large-scale land conservation initiatives that we would otherwise be unable to accomplish alone.”
There are other economic benefits to making Alabama more attractive to new business. “Business leaders are finding that states that have a lot of natural areas set aside, especially for public use, have a competitive edge in recruiting,” Oberholster says. “If somebody is locating a high-tech industry, people will vie by offering tax incentives, but all things being equal, they will go to a place with well-rounded quality of life.”
Ironically, it is the increasing economic vitality of Alabama that further increases the pressure on sensitive areas and makes Forever Wild even more important, and, perhaps, worthy of increased funding.
“We need to invest more in this, because of the accelerating threats as we become more successful in diversifying Alabama’s economy,” Oberholster says. “The pressures on these natural resources will increase, so we need to step up our conservation also.”
Those with a vested interest in the Forever Wild legislation would like for the program’s funding to be higher, of course, but according to Byington, the program has done a good job of attracting matching funds. “We’ve leveraged millions of dollars from private sources, from local and county governments,” he says. “That has made it a successful program. I would say that our program is actually better than most states.”
The success of Forever Wild did not stop a group of legislators in 2005 from proposing that one-third of the money budgeted for the program be diverted to other purposes, including volunteer fire departments and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. The proposal failed -- “It didn’t even get a committee vote,” Byington says – but this may not be the last such attempt. “There has been and always will be supporters of other worthy projects that believe all or a portion of the funding available to Forever Wild would be a good funding source for the things they care about,” Gothard says.
There is also no guarantee that Forever Wild will last forever. The original legislation includes a sunset provision limiting the program to 20 years, meaning the program could end after 2012. However, the people we talked to are optimistic that Forever Wild will be extended. According to Gothard, who cites the overwhelming public support for the 1992 amendment, “That high level of support among the general public still exists today and bodes well for continuation of the Forever Wild Program.”
“I’m optimistic if we continue the inclusive Forever Wild tradition and pull people together and figure out how to extend it,” Byington says. He suggests that the process of crafting an extension of Forever Wild would probably begin with the Forever Wild board and ADCNR. “Since they run it, they have to bring everybody together,” he says.
“Some people think they can extend it legislatively, but it should be a constitutional amendment to extend it properly,’ Byington says. He explains that one reason the attempt to take funding away from the program was defeated in 2005 was that, as he puts it, “People could say, ‘Well, it’s a constitutional amendment.’”
Forever Wild seems deserving of renewal if for no other reason because it is a case of an often-dysfunctional state government performing effectively. “Everybody complains about the state, but this is where it worked,” Byington says. “It’s just a shining star program. And it pulls together a lot of groups that are interested in protecting the natural heritage of the state — environmentalists and hunters, the business community and educators. It’s unique in that fashion.”