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Advisory Board Endorses Forever Wild, Sees New Honor Guard

By DAVID RAINER

In its first meeting of the year, the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board witnessed the unveiling of a new honor guard, unanimously passed a resolution of support for the Forever Wild program and entertained ideas on enhancing trout fishing in the Sipsey Fork below the Lewis Smith Dam.

Meeting at the Capitol Auditorium in Montgomery, Conservation Commissioner Barnett Lawley introduced the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) Honor Guard, which presented the colors at the beginning of the meeting.

Lawley said the honor guard was formed in 2009 to provide distinguished and honorable representation of the Alabama DCNR in times of mourning and celebration.

“The honor guard strives to make us all proud of honoring fallen officers, showing respect to their families and preserving and celebrating the traditions of the great State of Alabama,” Lawley said. “Dedicated officers donate their personal time and energy to assure that the honor guard represents DCNR in an appropriate manner. Its members are located throughout the state. Honor guard members practice and are available to serve through three teams – north, central and south teams.

“The honor guard is ready to represent the department at various events and meetings as directed by the commissioner. The teams are available at a family’s request for conservation enforcement officers, retirees, advisory board members and other government or political personnel. The honor guard will be an excellent tool in expanding the outreach efforts of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.”

After the invocation and presentation of colors, the board began to hear public testimony and the first was a request from Tim Gothard of the Alabama Wildlife Federation for the advisory board to pass a resolution in support of the Forever Wild program, which will expire in 2012 unless reauthorized by the Alabama Legislature.

“The Forever Wild program has been extremely, extremely important to the things that this advisory board actually represents,” Gothard said. “In the 17 years that the Forever Wild program has been around, Forever Wild has purchased about 200,000 acres for public access, wildlife management areas, recreation areas and the like. In 2007 and 2008 alone, we lost around 50,000 acres from our wildlife management areas for public hunting. Forever Wild has been the primary source to replenish public hunting lands and expand public hunting lands.

“If you look at the 200,000 Forever Wild has purchased in the last 17 years, I believe about 95-96 percent of those acres have actually provided public hunting opportunities for our citizens. That is vitally important. As our population continues to grow; as the value of private hunting lands continue to grow – which is something we’re all for – public hunting lands are going to be extremely important in maintaining that balance of availability of lands for our citizens to hunt. It’s going to be very important that we elevate in the eyes of the general public, in the eyes of our legislators the importance of the Forever Wild program so far and the Forever Wild program going forward.”

Gothard said the Protect Forever Wild Coalition has been formed with more than 60 organizations involved in promoting the reauthorization of Forever Wild in its current form. Gothard asked the advisory board to go on record as being in favor of Forever Wild reauthorization. Board member Bill Hatley of Gulf Shores introduced the requested resolution, which passed unanimously.

Advisory board member Grady Hartzog of Eufaula served for 12 years on the Forever Wild board and said he knows of no other program that has been as successful as Forever Wild.

“I had the privilege to serve on the Forever Wild board for two terms,” Hartzog said. “It’s the best program Alabama has ever had. I challenge each one out there to contact your legislator and express your support for Forever Wild because it provides land for you and your kids and grandkids into perpetuity.”

In other testimony, two chapters of Trout Unlimited asked the board to consider setting aside a portion of the Sipsey Fork below Lewis Smith Dam as an area for catch-and-and release only with a restriction of only artificial lures. The group also asked for an increase in stocking for rainbow trout with the addition of brown trout. The trout anglers also asked the board to consider a trout stamp to offset any costs related to their requests. A request was also made that a no-culling rule be implemented for trout – that any fish added to a stringer or container designed to hold fish could not be returned to the water and must count toward the daily creel limit. Also, one member of the trout fishing contingent asked that a portion of the Sipsey Fork below Lewis Smith Dam be closed to boat traffic.

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division (WFF) currently stocks rainbow trout in the Sipsey Fork that are procured through a swap of striped bass with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Fisheries Chief Stan Cook said USFWS has been approached about increasing the swap but indicated the federal agency did not indicate any interest to do so. Cook also said the introduction of brown trout, a non-native species, must be studied to ensure it would not negatively impact native species before any stocking will be considered. Corky Pugh, WFF Director, said the department would work on a no-culling regulation that could be considered at the next board meeting. Pugh also said that the impact of a catch-and-release area on people who use natural bait should be considered before they are excluded from any section of the Sipsey Fork.

Because board rules prohibit voting on any motion unless it had been discussed at a previous meeting, Hatley indicated he will bring a motion before the board at its March 13 meeting in Gadsden to allow hunters with crossbows to use sighting mechanisms with magnification. Current regulations do not allow scopes or any sighting systems with magnification for archery equipment, which includes crossbows.

Board member Ross Self of Gulf Shores asked the board to consider changing the recommended South Zone dove season dates to allow for hunting in September. Self suggested the dates of Sept. 11-19, Oct. 9-Nov. 14 and Dec. 18-Jan. 9.

“From personal observation – I’ve made trips all over Baldwin County – there are a lot of birds in the South Zone in the middle of September,” Self said. “Then for some reason, I don’t know why, they disappear. I’ve talked to a lot of people and legislators in my district and they all want a season in September. And biological science indicates there is no biological impact with these changes.”

In updates on action pending in the Alabama Legislature, John Thomas Jenkins, Director of Marine Police, said the so-called “boat theft” bill is again on the agendas of both houses. The bill would essentially make it illegal to alter any vessel identification or motor identification numbers.

Chris Blankenship of the Marine Resources Division said two bills are pending – one that deals with a comprehensive oyster management plan that includes enhancing the state’s oyster reefs, while the other would establish a non-resident pier saltwater fishing license. Blankenship also said several regulations would be proposed to bring state saltwater fishing regulations in line with federal guidelines, as well as simplify regulations dealing with the gill-net fishery.

PHOTO (by David Rainer) : The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Honor Guard presents colors at the Conservation Advisory Board meeting Feb. 6 in Montgomery.

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