Ken Hare In Depth: Forever Wild attracts strange bedfellows

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - It's hard to imagine an issue that would bring together such disparate groups as  dedicated gun enthusiasts and tree-hugging environmentalists, conservative business executives and mountain bikers, kayakers and the League of Women Voters. But there is such an issue, and Alabama voters will have a chance to support or oppose it when they go to the polls on Nov. 6.

Among the 11 statewide amendments that will be on the ballot in the upcoming general election is one that would extend the Forever Wild program that has bought or secured long-term leases on more than 227,000 acres of land for public recreational use since it was created in 1992.

When it first went before the voters in 1992, 83 percent of them backed the Forever Wild program. Under the program, Forever Wild gets up to 10 percent of the revenues from interest on Alabama oil and gas leases, with the amount capped at $15 million per year, to purchase and protect land for public use and access. No tax revenues are used for the program.

There is a certain serendipity to the funding process, which uses a small portion of the revenues from one declining natural resource -- oil and gas reserves -- to protect another declining resource -- wild and natural lands accessible for public use.

Despite its wide support from so many groups, Forever Wild must be renewed by the voters or its land acquisition efforts will end after next year.

Amendment No. 1 on the ballot would renew the Forever Wild funding for another 20 years.

The list of groups supporting passage of the amendment is as impressive as it is long. It includes the National Rifle Association, the Business Council of Alabama, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Alabama Wildlife Federation, the League of Women Voters of Alabama, the Christian Coalition of Alabama, and dozens more organizations. In addition to fishermen and hunters, backers include hikers, birders, bikers, kayakers, paleontologists and even spelunkers.

While there appears to be little widespread, organized opposition, some opponents have raised questions about whether the Forever Wild program's success over the past two decades makes it unnecessary to purchase and protect additional land.

But supporters of the program point out that in 1992 when Forever Wild was authorized by the voters, Alabama was dead last among the states in the Southeast in the percentage of public lands that were protected and available for access by the public. It still is dead last. And even if the amendment is approved and a similar amount of land is purchased over the next 20 years, Alabama probably would remain last among the Southeastern states.

In a recent guest column,  Riley Boykin Smith, a former board member of Forever Wild and a former commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, wrote:  "Forever Wild, in my opinion, is the most apolitical and noncontroversial program that Alabamians have ever approved."

Smith points out that the outdoor recreation industry in Alabama has an annual economic impact of $2.2 billion and that Forever Wild significantly helps expand outdoor recreation opportunities "for citizens and tourists alike."

When Alabamians enter the voting booth on Nov. 6, they will see only the following brief language asking them to vote yes or no: "Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, relating to the Forever Wild Land Trust, to reauthorize the trust for a 20-year period. (Proposed by Act No. 2011-315)"

But those voters who wish to read the full language of the amendment can do so by going to the following web site and clicking on Act No. 2011-315:

To see sample ballots from all 67 Alabama counties, voters can go to:

Voters should look at the sample ballot for their county to  find the act number associated with the amendment, and  then click on that amendment on the Secretary of State's web site to read the full act.

Few public issues come along that draw support from such a wide swath of the political and social spectrum. But that does not mean that Forever Wild's passage is a slam dunk on Nov. 6. Many voters don't bother with the amendments, despite their importance. And in Alabama, a general distrust of government too often prompts voters to vote no on amendments they don't fully understand.

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