Forever Wild Land Trust

Turkey Creek In 1992, the state government of Alabama established the Forever Wild Land Trust, which enabled the state to acquire and protect selected wildlands with special recreational, scientific, educational, and natural value. Each tract obtained under the program is evaluated for its particular attributes and managed appropriately according to a primary designation as a natural preserve, state park, wildlife management area, or special recreational area. As of 2018, the program has acquired 160 tracts of wildlands and water areas that encompass more than 266,000 acres. All tracts are accessible for public use in accordance with conservation management guidelines respective to each tract. Those properties represent an array of natural features in various parts of the state, ranging from the program's first acquisition, 209 acres of scenic, mountainous bald eagle habitat adjacent to Lake Guntersville State Park in Marshall County, to more recent acquisitions such as 2,465 acres of pine savanna ecosystem in the Grand Bay wetlands area of coastal Mobile County.

Forever Wild is the product of the most significant pieces of environmental legislation in Alabama history. The bill gained legislative approval with the support of Republican governor Guy Hunt and his appointed commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), James D. Martin. Alabama voters approved the statewide referendum establishing the program with 84 percent of the vote, a margin among the highest ever recorded in the United States for similar environmental legislation. Most significantly, the overwhelming support for Forever Wild evidenced strong public sentiment for the need to protect important aspects of Alabama's natural heritage.

Walls of Jericho Waterfall Forever Wild was the culmination of many years of advocacy by Alabamians interested in wildland conservation. In the early 1970s, environmental activists worked to encourage the creation of a state land-acquisition program. Maggie Foster, a member of the Alabama Conservancy, sought assistance from national organizations such as the Nature Conservancy in an attempt to spark state interest in a collaborative land-acquisition program. In 1984, Discovering Alabama host and producer Doug Phillips, himself an environmental educator at the University of Alabama (UA), organized a coalition of educators and scientists and launched the Alabama Natural Diversity Inventory (ANDI), in partnership with the Nature Conservancy and UA. ANDI was intended to create a database of Alabama's natural diversity and would later expand to become the Alabama Natural Heritage Program, replicating the national model originally developed by the Nature Conservancy. A 1984 ANDI report, entitled "Natural Heritage Protection in Alabama: A Summary Analysis of Needs and Possible Corrective Strategies," laid the foundation for a land-acquisition program for Alabama.

ANDI was terminated by UA in 1985, and the Nature Conservancy subsequently pursued a smaller partnership with a group of biologists at Huntingdon College in Montgomery. That same year, ANDI coordinator Doug Phillips moved to Troy University, where he became director of the Center for Environmental Research and Service (CERS). For the remainder of the 1980s, CERS continued the mission envisioned by ANDI, significant Alabama wildlands, promoting appreciation of Alabama's natural environment through the Discovering Alabama television series, and advocating for the creation of an Alabama wildland acquisition and protection program. In 1990, the state legislature voted on a land acquisition bill promoted by environmental activists, but it failed to receive the necessary support.

Also in 1990, Guy Hunt won reelection and appointed James D. Martin as commissioner of conservation. Martin was an enthusiastic supporter of Alabama's wild places and placed official emphasis on protecting the state's natural heritage. Recognizing the growing public support for protecting Alabama's wildlands, Martin convinced Hunt to create a committee charged with exploring the feasibility of a state land-acquisition program. Martin filled the Forever Wild Committee with stakeholder representatives from business, government, and citizen groups, as well as the scientific community, education, private landowners, and recreational and sporting enthusiast groups.

Heron Bay Wetlands Martin also asked Jim Griggs, the director of ADCNR's State Lands Division, to oversee the activities of the Forever Wild Committee, and he arranged for Doug Phillips to serve as facilitator for the committee meetings. Over a period of nine months, the committee met in a planned sequence of facilitated sessions that worked to resolve various competing interests and other barriers to bring about broad consensus support. The result, in the summer of 1992, was the Alabama Forever Wild Land Trust Bill, sponsored in the Alabama legislature by the speaker pro tem of the House, Jim Campbell, and by Sen. Doug Ghee. This bill provided for the establishment, operation, and funding of the proposed Forever Wild Land Acquisition Program following voter approval via a statewide referendum.

The resounding voter affirmation (with some 84 percent voting in favor) for Forever Wild is attributed in part to intensive citizen education efforts in the months preceding the referendum, but the program's adoption also resulted from the program's economical design. Especially pleasing to Alabamians, Forever Wild required no new taxes. The program is funded with a portion of the interest earned by the Alabama Trust Fund, a special fund created with windfall money paid to the state from offshore natural gas leases. Furthermore, use of state funds by the program is bound by stringent fiscal guidelines. Program costs drawn from the Alabama Trust Fund are restricted to a cap of $15 million annually, and the Forever Wild legislation included a sunset provision limiting the program to 20 years.

In addition, Forever Wild has no power to condemn or appropriate lands. Lands acquired by the program may come only through purchases or donations. Tracts nominated for possible acquisition by Forever Wild must be owned by a willing seller and then are evaluated for suitability according to such criteria as size, location, and physiographic characteristics, biological diversity and presence of critical species or special habitats, and landowner receptiveness to the nomination.

In 2012, Forever Wild's 20-year authorization expired and reauthorization was again put up to a public vote. Once again, Alabamians overwhelmingly voted in favor of Forever Wild's efforts, with 75 percent of voters voting in favor. This sizeable public support for Forever Wild was in contrast, however, to a smaller but vocal contingent of political opposition seeking primarily to redirect Forever Wild funds to other purposes. Such voices of opposition still linger but thus far have been unable to hinder Forever Wild's on-going progress.

Big Canoe Creek Nature Preserve, on Alabama Forever Wild property, was established in 2018. Located in St. Clair County on Highway 9 within the Springville city limits, the 422 acre tract protects the watershed of the creek it is named for and forested land. The area is home to eight mussel species, including the endemic and endangered Canoe Creek clubshell mussel (Pleurobema athearni). The signage for the park features the threatened trispot darter (Etheostoma trisella), which is also found in the area. The site opened to the public for hiking, bird watching,  horseback riding, and mountain biking in 2024.

Forever Wild License Plate Forever Wild is administered by the State Lands Division of ADCNR and guided by the 15-member advisory board comprising the commissioner of ADCNR, the state forester, three biologists appointed by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, the executive director of the Marine Environmental Science Consortium, and nine members representing all regions of the state and appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the House of Representatives from a list of nominees provided by various conservation, environmental, business, recreational, and sportsmen organizations. The advisory board reviews nominated tracts and decides which ones will be purchased and then submits the list to the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the house for purchasing approval.

The daily tasks of tract evaluation, title and abstract review, stewardship planning, report preparation, and other tasks are performed by the Natural Heritage Section of ADCNR's State Lands Division. The Natural Heritage Section, created in 1989 as a spin-off of the formative work of the ANDI project, was strengthened by provisions in the Forever Wild legislation to enable ongoing operations necessary for its supportive role with the Forever Wild program.

Elf Orpine Flowers In 2012, Forever Wild's 20-year authorization expired, and reauthorization was again put up to a public vote. Once again, Alabamians overwhelmingly voted in favor of Forever Wild's efforts, with 75 percent of voters voting yes. As significant as Forever Wild's contributions have been to conservation in Alabama, they do not begin to match similar programs of other states that are committing much greater expenditures for land protection. Nevertheless, Forever Wild is a notable example of diverse interest groups working to develop a broadly supported, innovative land-acquisition program for Alabama. This unprecedented success may be the vital ingredient leading to further measures, as have been suggested, for developing a comprehensive statewide Alabama Land Conservation Plan, and possibly even extending the duration of the Forever Wild Program and bolstering overall support for wildland protection in the state.

Further Reading

  • Gwin, Gaylon. "Forever Wild—Four Years Later." Outdoor Alabama 49 (Winter 1997): 26–29.
  • Martin, James D. "Forever Wild." Alabama Conservation 44 (Summer 1992): 4.

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