AN UPDATE ON THE STATUS OF THE LAND PRESERVATION CAMPAIGN
Supporters of the state land program Forever Wild are ramping up a sevenfigure campaign to support the popular program when it comes on the ballot for reapproval in November, 20 years after it was first adopted.
“The youngest people who voted on Forever Wild in 1992 are 39, 40, 41, 42 years old now,” said Tim Gothard, executive director of the Alabama Wildlife Federation. “We’ve got to educate a lot of people about this.”
Forever Wild is a state program that preserves land for recreation, hunting, hiking and other public use. To pay for the land it uses 10 percent of the revenue from the Alabama Trust Fund, the annual earnings from royalties from offshore drilling for oil and natural gas.
The program was adopted with a landslide 83.6 percent of the vote in 1992 and has faced no scandals or hints of corruption in its 20 years. Backers had hoped to walk the program through an easy reapproval from the Legislature two years ago.
But the Alabama Farmers Federation first proposed using some of the money for the program for other purposes and then asked the Legislature to study Forever Wild before reauthorizing it.
With the clock ticking on the program – it sunsets after 20 years – supporters persuaded the Legislature to instead let them take it to the public on a referendum Nov. 6.
“The Farmers Federation has voted not to take a position on the reauthorization of Forever Wild,” said spokeswoman Debra Davis.
Protect Forever Wild, which shepherded the bill through the Legislature, has regrouped and calls itself Alabamians for Forever Wild. It is planning a private sector fundraising campaign in the seven figures for a series of TV and radio ads, Gothard said.
The group’s supporters include 160 corporations, environmental and hunting groups and others with an interest in recreation. Alabama Power Co. has signed on, as has the Business Council of Alabama, the Alabama Audubon Council and the Alabama Rifle and Pistol Association.
The program’s broad-based popularity comes from the broad nature of its mission: to provide publicly preserved land for hunting, birdwatching, mountain biking, fishing, horseback riding and nearly any other outdoor pursuit you could think of.
It also puts a premium on any land that would help to preserve an imperiled species or habitat, saving private landowners from the onus of protecting them.
So far it has purchased 226,841 acres from the 50,000-acre Mobile-Tensaw Delta in the south to 18,000 acres for the Walls of Jericho in the north, said Greg Lein, assistant director of state lands at the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. It has spent $168 million of state money and $44 million it raised in matching funds from the federal government.
The program’s biggest project actually isn’t wild forever, Lein noted. It’s a 94-year recreational lease on 61,000 acres at the Cahaba River Wildlife Management Area in Bibb and Shelby counties and the Mulberry Fork Wildlife Management Area in Walker and Tuscaloosa counties. In addition to hunting, plans are in the works to make horseback riding and canoe trails there, Lein said.
With such a feel-good program up for a vote it might seem puzzling that proponents feel the need for a million-dollarplus campaign.
But the group looks back on its opposition from the Farmers Federation over the past two years. Its other big concern is that during rough economic times the initiative might be reflexively voted down by a public falsely assuming that the land uses tax dollars, Gothard said.
“We know if we could sit everybody down in Alabama and fully explain the program we would get 80-plus percent of the vote,” he said.
Instead, the group is going to use what Gothard calls a two-pronged approach.
“By the end of February we want to have our messaging and strategy in place,” he said.
That will include old media of radio and TV ads along with new media of social networking: asking every Forever Wild supporter to reach out and inspire every friend and colleague to go to the polls and vote yes on Amendment 1.
“Your friends will listen to you before they will listen to someone they don’t know,” he said.
The language on the ballot is simply to reauthorize the Forever Wild Land Trust, said Wendy Jackson, executive director of the Freshwater Land Trust. That means people will have to be well educated before they get to the polls, she said: “People love Forever Wild when they understand Forever Wild.”