By DAVID RAINER

The folks who love the outdoors in the middle of the Alabama Black Belt have experienced a wide range of emotions in the past year concerning one of the area’s iconic destinations. Those emotions have gone from disappointment and frustration to hope and, now, celebration.

Roland Cooper State Park near Camden was a casualty of funding shortfalls during last year’s budget crisis. The park has been shuttered, but the Alabama State Parks system hoped to find a qualified company to sign a contract to operate the park.

Much to the folks in west central Alabama’s delight, Recreation Resource Management was awarded the contract to operate the park, and the Arizona company is fast at work to try to get the park, located on the banks of the scenic Miller’s Ferry Reservoir on the Alabama River, open for Labor Day.

Kelly Ezell, State Parks’ Central District Supervisor, said Recreation Resource Management (RRM) operates more than 150 campsites in 11 states and has the expertise to make Roland Cooper successful.

Of course, Ezell said the park’s reopening couldn’t have happened without the cooperation of a number of entities.

“RRM is there working right now,” said Ezell, who also is Oak Mountain State Park Superintendent. “We’ve worked with the city (Camden) and county (Wilcox). They’ve helped us to get things back in shape. We’ve had crews from other state parks in there, removing some trees and limbs. We want to get it cleaned up so it will be opened back up by Labor Day.”

Although the park has only been closed a little more than 10 months, Ezell said the lack of maintenance causes any property to suffer deterioration.

“We’re just trying to get the grounds back in shape,” she said. “Nobody has cut the grass. We tried to get down to Roland Cooper to check on things about once a month, but it’s not like having a crew on the ground to take care of the everyday upkeep. Almost a year is a long time for something to sit idle, and a lot of things happen.

“Right now, we’re making sure all the water and electric are working at the campsites. We’ve been very fortunate to have the City of Camden and Wilcox County to help us get everything in shape.”

Ezell said the state’s equipment has been moved to a secure area to make room for RRM’s equipment in the maintenance building, and that the six cabins are being cleaned and the 

maintenance brought up to standards.

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division has used Roland Cooper as the weigh-in site for the annual alligator hunts in the West Central Zone. Although the park is not officially open, State Parks is continuing to allow the gators to be weighed in during the transitional period.

Ezell said Roland Cooper has quality amenities for those who enjoy the outdoors in a rural setting, especially with the quick access to the great fishing offered on Miller’s Ferry.

“The boat launch and the pier at Roland Cooper are basically brand-new,” she said. “There’s a brand-new bath house there. We’ve got a lot to work with and build on at Roland Cooper.”

Ezell said in addition to the City of Camden and Wilcox County, the Wilcox Area Chamber of Commerce has been a constant advocate for the re-opening of the park.

“I think it was such a shock to the area when it closed,” she said. “The park was a very important asset to that area. I think everybody is very invested in getting it open and functioning.”

Hunter Hines, President of the Wilcox Area Chamber of Commerce, agrees with Ezell’s assessment.

“This is about as good news as we could have for our area,” Hines said. “The park is second to none in terms of economic impact for our area. We can’t host a fishing tournament with over 50 boats without the park. It’s hard to put a dollar amount on the economic impact we’ve lost in the last 10 months.”

Hines said areas with large cities aren’t impacted as much by park closures as a rural area like Wilcox County.

“Think about the campers and cabins, not to mention the fishermen, who came to this area and spent their money buying gas and groceries in our little, small community,” he said. “That kind of impact is huge for us and is detrimental when it’s not there.

“Now we’ll be able to get back to marketing little ol’ Camden to the big bass tournaments, fishermen and people who love the outdoors.”

Alabama Bass Trail Program Director Kay Donaldson said the park has been used during its closure for some fishing tournaments. “The willingness of the state park to give the city of Camden the opportunity to continue hosting fishing tournaments while the park was closed was outstanding.” She said. “It was vital to the community to keep those dollars flowing to the gas stations and stores from tournament anglers.”

Hines said there will be a grand re-opening ceremony at Roland Cooper from 3-7 p.m. September 11 with a “Music in the Park” theme. Visitors are urged to bring lawn chairs to enjoy the music and meet the new park managers.

James “Big Daddy” Lawler has been promoting the outdoors in west central Alabama for more years than he would readily admit. He hosts a weekly radio show called “Gettin’ Outdoors Radio with Big Daddy Lawler” that airs from 7-9 a.m. on Saturdays. 

“Opening the campgrounds and cabins back up at Roland Cooper is huge,” Lawler said. “You just don’t have much lodging in what I call the rural South, which fits our area to a tee. Because of the uncertainty of being able to use the boat launch at the park, we lost the stop on the Alabama Bass Trail, which was a huge economic loss for our area. Opening the park back up will give us an opportunity to attract those big bass tournaments again with the use of those facilities.”

Lawler, who recently received the Alabama Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Communicator of the Year award, said the Camden area can’t worry about what was lost during the park’s closure, only what the re-opening will mean.

“We can’t look back,” he said. “We’ve got to look ahead. This company (RRM) is very experienced at running venues like this, and I think they’re going to be an asset to the area.”

Lawler said as the nation becomes more urban, there is a renewed appreciation for rural areas that allow visitors to reconnect with nature.

“Being away from everybody is an advantage for us,” he said. “Everybody in the big town wants to come to the rural areas. I’ve been saying this for 35 years; What we have to offer in Wilcox, Marengo, Monroe and Dallas counties is the most diversified natural resources in the nation. And when I say natural resources, I’m not just talking about the hunting and fishing. I’m talking about the birding, native wildflowers and the red hills salamander areas. There is so much we have available.

“I tell everybody, nobody is passing through Wilcox County. We’re not close to the interstate or a big highway. People have got to be coming here for a reason. And Roland Cooper State Park is huge reason to come here.”

PHOTOS (By Kim G. Nix): Miller’s Ferry is a popular fishing spot for recreational and tournament anglers. Roland Cooper’s campground is nestled under tall pine trees.

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