By David Rainer, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

When it comes to return on investment, very few programs can match the success of Alabama’s Forever Wild Land Trust.

Forever Wild was established in 1992 as a vehicle to preserve and protect important ecological and recreational tracts of land in the state. Voters approved the constitutional amendment that established Forever Wild with an overwhelming 84 percent approval.

Two years later, Forever Wild closed on its first parcel of land, and now the program owns 195,000 acres and has an additional 60,000 acres under long-term lease agreements. Forever Wild funding comes from interest earnings generated by oil and gas production royalties paid to the state and is capped at $15 million annually. According to The Alabama State Lands Division, which administers the program for the Forever Wild Land Trust Board, funding to date for the current fiscal year is about $14 million.

When Forever Wild came up for renewal for another 20 years in 2012, the program maintained widespread support and passed with 75 percent of the vote.

Despite the public support, there have been attempts to divert some of the Forever Wild funding, and concerned conservation groups decided to sponsor a return-on-investment study to show how Forever Wild benefits the state in ways more than the intrinsic values of preserving sensitive habitat or providing public recreation opportunities.

At last week’s Forever Wild Land Trust Board meeting in Spanish Fort, Tammy Herrington, Executive Director of Conservation Alabama, took her turn during the public comment portion of the meeting to remind those in attendance of the enormous impact of Forever Wild and outdoors recreation on Alabama’s economy.

“We partnered with The Trust for Public Land, The Nature Conservancy and others to do an economic impact study to show the economic value of the program so we would have the information when we were talking with legislators and voters about the actual benefits the program does bring to the state,” Herrington said. “There have been attacks in recent years on public lands. So we had an idea there would be continued threats to Forever Wild, and we wanted to bring the numbers into the conversation.”

Herrington said the economic study showed that for every $1 invested in public land through the Forever Wild Land Trust, $5 is returned in goods and services to the state.

The economic analysis, a return-on-investment study, focused on fee simple purchases made by Forever Wild using state dollars. Public lands purchased through partnerships with federal grant programs, conservation organizations or private landowners were not included to purposely highlight the benefits of Alabama’s direct investment in land conservation through Forever Wild.

Herrington said the economic study verified what the study sponsors expected from setting aside land for public access and recreational use.

“We feel it’s a conservative estimate to what public lands bring to the state,” she said. “We focused just on Forever Wild land. When you look at some of the ways the program is able to leverage funds from federal, private and nonprofit sources, it adds to the value.

“So we think it brings more economic benefits than can even be quantified through this economic report.”

The report showed that tourists and residents spend $7.5 billion annually on outdoor recreation, which generates $494 million in tax revenues and supports 86,000 jobs and $2 billion in wages in Alabama.

One of the most geographically and ecologically diverse states in the nation, Alabama’s habitat includes mountains, coastal beaches, grassland plains, forests, farmland and abundant water resources in the drainages of the Tombigbee, Tennessee and Alabama river systems.

“In addition to those concrete numbers about the economy, you have stories in local communities about how they were able to take Forever Wild lands and were able to market them to bring in people for recreational opportunities, like hunting and other outdoors activities, to their areas,” Herrington said. “Those stories are all very interesting to me.

“Not only are you looking at what happens in economic impact, you’re able to look at places like Anniston, which took their Forever Wild land and built a biking community around it. You’ve got bicyclers from all over going to Anniston for their great mountain biking.”

The area near Anniston that Herrington referred to is the Doug Ghee Nature Preserve and Recreation Area, which is comprised of four Forever Wild acquisitions on Coldwater Mountain. Named for the former Alabama legislator and Forever Wild board member, the 4,180-acre tract of mountainous forest is a combination of hardwoods and pines.

A total of 35 miles of bike trails, ranging from beginner level to expert, have been constructed on Coldwater Mountain. The trail system attracts riders from all over the U.S. and has become a mecca for mountain bikers in the Southeast. Forever Wild’s Coldwater Mountain tract has been recognized by the International Mountain Biking Association as a Bronze-Level Ride Center, one of only 37 in the world.

Forever Wild has been used to purchase land in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, Little River Canyon, Sipsey River Complex, Cathedral Caverns, Ruffner Mountain, Weeks Bay Reserve, Splinter Hill Bog and the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, to name only a few. Additions to numerous Wildlife Management Areas were created through Forever Wild purchases, as well as additions to the Alabama State Parks System.

“I think that’s what people don’t understand,” Herrington said. “Our organization, Conservation Alabama Foundation, is focused on nature but also how people interact with nature. It’s not just to protect the wildlife for nature’s sake, it’s really about how citizens of this state interact with the land and what intrinsic value that brings to us as people. That’s why we do this work. Looking at public lands and these communities that benefit from Forever Wild lands, local leaders and citizens want to take advantage of them personally but also bring tourism opportunities into their community.”