Legislature should reauthorize Forever Wild

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 26, 2011

Two bills before the legislature could affect the future of Forever Wild, Alabama’s land preservation program.

Established by Constitutional Amendment (i.e. statewide vote) in 1992. The program sets aside 10 percent of the annual income earned on the nearly $3 billion Alabama Trust Fund (which is fed by oil and gas leases), not to exceed $15 million in any year.

In turn, the Forever Wild Board buys property throughout the state, which it then works to preserve and makes available to the public for general recreation, nature preserves and state parks.

Since its establishment, the program has purchased 85 tracts totaling 222,611 acres throughout the state, including the Walls of Jericho in Jackson County, mountaintop trails around Monte Sano, eagle roosting areas around Guntersville Lake, and 35,000 acres of sensitive wetlands in the Mobile Delta. At present, the board is focusing on property in Central Alabama.

Forever Wild is back before the legislature for two reasons. First, when voters approved it in 1992, it had a 20-year sunset clause, specifically Oct. 1, 2012. Proponents of Forever Wild want to move on with a renewal vote before the expiration. Approval of this bill could get the issue on the ballot in the 2012 primary elections. This bill has been approved by a House committee, but has not before the full house.

The second measure, a joint resolution, was introduced within days of committee approval of the first. It appears to be a stalling tactic that could endanger Forever Wild and potentially render it extinct. The resolution calls for a 12-member committee (six senators and six representatives) to “review and study the effectiveness” of the program. The bill calls for a report by May 3.

Technically, that would still give the legislature time to reauthorize Forever Wild. Still, proponents fear the intent is to reallocate the funds.

The Alabama Farmers Federation/ALFA Insurance has led the effort to question the program. The organization insists it’s not trying to derail Forever Wild, but its spokesperson talks is promoting other uses of the money such as farm preservation efforts that would also protect land from development. The difference, however, is that farmers would retain title to their property and public access would likely be prohibited.

In the 19 years of its existence, Forever Wild has been scandal-free. This program is good both for the environment and the taxpayers of Alabama. We hope the legislature will complete its study and allow voters the opportunity to reauthorize.