MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Alabama voters will have a chance in the November election to cast a vote for protecting the state's wonderful state parks system, and I strongly urge voters to do so.
Amendment 2 on the state ballot will protect funding for state parks from raids by the Alabama Legislature -- raids that have drained more than $15 million in funding from state parks over the past five years.
If you are a birder, a fisherman, a hiker, a camper, or you just like natural places for your family to swim and picnic, you should look favorably on this amendment. (Click on photo gallery for photos from state parks.)
I was a public affairs and political writer for decades before I started writing this nature and birding column, and I understand completely that Alabama earmarks far too much of state funding for particular purposes -- far more than any other state. Such earmarking ties the hands of the Legislature, making it difficult for lawmakers to address budget crises and shifting funding needs.
But the Legislature's handling of the state parks system's budget in recent years shows just why earmarking has been so popular in Alabama for so long.
Faced with very real budget problems, the Legislature repeatedly turned to revenues from park fees and services to put Band-Aids on those issues, rather than addressing them in any long-term fashion.
The parks system earns more than 80 percent of its budget each year from park fees and concession sales. In recent years legislators have pulled more than $15 million of those revenues for other uses, forcing the parks system to exhaust much of its reserves and then, last year, to close five state parks. Other parks had to limit hours and reduce maintenance spending.
Those closings and reductions spurred a public outcry, and some lawmakers pushed for this amendment designed to help prevent that from happening again. The closed parks have reopened, thanks to help from local governments and creative thinking by park officials. But the closings still focused attention on what would happen if funding diversions continued.
This amendment is not a panacea for parks funding. The Legislature still controls a sizable chunk of parks revenue. But it is a major step in the right direction.
Alabama needs its state parks, and it needs them funded well enough to be properly maintained. The parks system is a major building block of the state's tourism program, which helps to generate revenues not just for the parks but for other state programs and for cities and counties.
But revenue aside, the parks are crucial to the quality of life for Alabama residents. Without them, there still would be some great natural areas available to the public in the state -- national wildlife refuges, for instance, and city and county parks. But the state parks are the backbone of the public's access to natural areas in Alabama.
The Alabama State Parks system protects more than 47,000 acres of land across the state. Lose them and the public would lose hundreds of miles of trails and hundreds of vistas that stir the soul. Lose them and the public would lose access to dozens of lakes, campsites, and picnic areas. Lose them, and Alabamians would lose a major slice of its heritage.
Vote for Amendment 2 in the Nov. 8 election and you will make it more likely that Alabama's state parks still will be there for your children and grandchildren.
Alabama Ornithological Society fall meeting, Oct. 14-16
The Alabama Ornithological Society holds its fall meeting each year on Dauphin Island, one of the best sites to see fall and spring migratory birds and shorebirds in the United States.
While the meeting is for AOS members, it only costs $25 per year to join. That entitles birders to attend AOS fall and spring meetings on Dauphin Island and a winter meeting elsewhere around the state. Registration and banquet fees for the meetings are modest as well.
Each of those meetings includes several birding field trips and knowledgeable speakers. Membership also entitles you to a copy of the group's newsletter, The Yellowhammer, as well as other occasional publications on birding. Best of all, it allows those interested in birding to interact with some of the best informed birders in Alabama and to be part of an organization that promotes birding and nature protection.
The fall meeting speaker this year is Dr. Erik I. Johnson, director of bird conservation for Audubon Louisiana. Johnson also will lead field trips during the weekend, as will Andrew Haffenden, a Dauphin Island resident who leads birding field trips around the world.
For information, go to: http://www.aosbirds.org/
Birmingham Audubon Programs
The Birmingham Audubon Society has a wide-ranging slate of programs and field trips this fall, including an Oct. 22 trip to Montgomery area birding sites led by Montgomery birder Larry Gardella, who has extensive knowledge of birding in general and especially in the Montgomery area.
Audubon field trips are open to non-members.
In addition, the new schedule has been announced for the 2016-2017 Audubon Teaches Nature programs at Oak Mountain State Park. These are wonderful educational programs on a variety of nature issues, from birds of prey to alligators and other reptiles to geology and paleontology. You definitely should check out a few of the programs; I plan to attend all I can work into my schedule.
For details, go to: http://birminghamaudubon.org/
Wiregrass Birding Trail Tour, Nov. 5
This new program at Lakepoint Resort State Park on Lake Eufaula promises to be an exciting addition to fall birding programs in Alabama. The program is a joint project of the Alabama State Parks system, the Alabama Birding Trails system, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division.
The daylong program includes a guided birding field trip in the morning, a "Duckumentary" waterfowl educational program at 1 p.m. at the Lakepoint State Park Lodge, followed by a guided birding field trip to Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge.
Ken Hare is a retired newspaper editor and writer who now writes for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at email@example.com.