Geneva State Forest The Alabama Forestry Commission (AFC) is a state agency that was established in 1924 to protect nearly 14,000 acres of state forestlands, assist private landowners in forest management, and educate the public on the importance of healthy forests. The Forestry Commission, with state headquarters in Montgomery, Montgomery County, is currently divided into four geographic regions and 18 units consisting of two, three, and four counties. Local offices are in Decatur, Gardendale, Brewton, Atmore, Northport, Clanton, Kinston, and Autaugaville. The AFC also maintains four state forests: Choccolocco, Geneva, Little River, and Weogufka. Privately owned forestlands encompass the remaining acreage that currently covers up to 65 percent of the total land area in Alabama.
Felling Longleaf Pines Prior to European arrival, Alabama was likely once covered with approximately 32 million acres of forests. The first accurate report, made during the 1900 Census, placed the number of forested acres at 24.5 million acres. This amount was approximately 72 percent of Alabama’s total land area. As early as 1907, a forest management plan was created, and a commission established, but it was not successfully implemented because of lack of funding. The Forestry Act of 1923 established a statewide commission, with Col. Page S. Bunker appointed as the first State Forester in 1924 to head the agency. The main goals of the AFC were to protect and manage the growing timber and pulpwood industry that had undergone rapid development since the Gulf Paper Mill, reportedly the first in the state, was built in 1917 along Three-Mile Creek in Mobile County.
Weogufka Caretaker’s Cabin In the late 1920s, the state government sought to create state parks and authorized the commission to oversee their development; establishing 11 parks by 1933. Also that year, the commission began working with the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps to construct park facilities and improve forest fire control. The agency oversaw the parks until 1939, when those duties were given to the Department of Conservation (present-day Department of Conservation and Natural Resources). From 1934 to 1936, the U.S. Forest Service conducted a field study as part of the federal McSweeney-McNarey Forest Research Act of 1928. This survey aimed to inventory forest resources, growth rates (the time it would take before the timber could be harvested), and timber volume (the amount of board feet of lumber that could be obtained from the trees). The survey found that approximately 54 percent of the growing timber stock was pine and 45 percent was hardwood.
Expansion and Protection Programs
Forestry products are the number one source of agricultural revenue in the state and must be carefully managed to be a renewable resource. The AFC had established the first tree nursery, in Sumter County, in 1926. The original purpose of the nursery was to encourage landowners to replant trees on their land. In 1939, a larger tree nursery was established in Autaugaville after the Sumter facility was shuttered. In the first year of growing seedlings, more than 730,000 were provided during the planting season. A nursery was established near Opelika, Lee County, in the late 1940s, and another near Atmore, Escambia County, a few years later. By the early 1950s, these nurseries produced nearly 35.5 million plantable trees.
Controlled Burn The commission also implements several programs to protect the forestlands from wildfires. Wildfire detection is provided by a fleet of airplanes that continuously monitors the forests. A telephone system enables the public to report wildfires 24 hours a day. As part of its fire suppression efforts, the agency seeks the assistance of local fire departments and by using fire breaks. The agency builds and maintains fire breaks using bulldozers equipped with fire plows to remove flammable vegetation. These actions aim to prevent the spread and intensity of wildfires. It also uses helicopters equipped with water buckets to control fires in combination with ground crews. In addition, the agency encourages private landowners to manage and maintain forests through three Forest Certification programs that promote sustainable management of forests while protecting wildlife and air and water quality. The Stewardship program works in cooperation with state forestry, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, and conservation districts to supply landowners with information and tools to properly manage forestlands. The Tree Farm program promotes growing renewable forest resources on privately owned land. The Treasure Forest program is an award earned by private landowners who show commitment to ethical and sustainable forest management. The Sustainable Forest Initiative is an associated non-profit organization that provides support services to the AFC and the Forest Certification programs. This initiative links the forest products into a traceable system from harvest to sale and provides consumers assurance of sustainably produced products from healthy forests. Each piece of certified lumber is labeled and traceable back to a certified forest in Alabama.
Relict Trillium Under the umbrella of AFC protection programs, the agency monitors and controls the spread of invasive species such as kudzu, Japanese privet, bamboo, and others. Alabama’s 2008 Forest Action Plan identifies threats such as invasive species and diseases that could threaten the health of forestlands. The plan promotes strategies such as performing surveys and monitoring invasive species, to address threats to the forests and access funding from federal resources. The AFC also monitors endangered and threatened species through the federal Threatened and Endangered Species Act of 1973, which identifies habitats that are crucial for endangered plants and animals and maintains data on each one. Currently 128 species are listed as endangered or threatened in Alabama, including the Alabama cavefish, Red Hills salamander, green pitcher plant, and relict trillium. As growth and industrialization continues in the state, it remains vital for the AFC to provide protection of endangered and threatened species while still maintaining the productivity of the state’s forests.
Constitution Oak in Geneva County The AFC manages several educational programs to promote conservation and teach the public on the importance of healthy forests. The Champion Tree Program was created in 1970 to discover and record the largest of each native tree species in Alabama. After a “Champion” tree is identified by the AFC, the nominated tree receives a marker plaque and the property owner receives a certificate. This designation encourages landowners to preserve and protect the trees for future generations. The Famous and Historical Tree Program implemented in 1981 locates and recognizes trees that have historical significance. The categories are based on notable people, conservation, well-known educational institutions, the arts, and sciences. This program helps preserve the history of Alabama and the trees themselves. As part of the Forest in the Classroom Program, schoolchildren learn about wildlife habitat, maintaining forest health, and products made from trees. The AFC organizes visits to outdoor classroom facilities that provide important opportunities for learning in the forest environment. Children may also learn about forestry jobs and careers in the forestry industry. The agency also provides private forest landowners Treasured Forests magazine, published in the spring, summer, and fall, providing information on controlled burning, pests and diseases, invasive species, and other topics important to forestry health.
The commission is overseen by a seven-member board appointed by the governor. A “State Forester” heads the agency and its executive, management, and protection divisions. The assistant state forester supervises each of the four regional offices, managed by a regional forester. The largest number of commission employees, who are primarily forestry specialists and rangers, work for the regional offices.
The Alabama Forestry Commission implements its mission to protect Alabama forests, help landowners manage private forest lands, and educate the public on the value of healthy forests by implementing various programs. These efforts help provide valuable income from forest products and still maintain vital habitat for the native species of plants and wildlife. Healthy forest lands are crucial to maintain clean water and air quality in the state for future generations of Alabamians. As industrialization and urban development continue in Alabama AFC provides the needed resources for landowners to maintain healthy productive forests.