By DAVID RAINER
During the hectic holiday season last year, one item of important business conducted by the Forever Wild program got somewhat overlooked.
In an unprecedented move, Forever Wild secured a long-term agreement on a large tract of land vitally important to outdoors recreation in central Alabama. Forever Wild and Molpus Timberlands Management, a timberland investment management organization, concluded lengthy negotiations for the purchase of a 93-year recreational lease within two of the state’s largest and most heavily used Wildlife Management Areas (WMA). The project includes more than 61,000 acres in four central Alabama counties for recreational use, including hunting and fishing.
The transaction encompasses about 27,858 acres within the Bibb and Shelby County portions of the Cahaba River WMA, and 33,280 acres within Tuscaloosa and Walker counties for the Mulberry Fork WMA. Both areas have been part of the state’s WMA system for the past decade, and are now secured under the long-term lease.
What is unprecedented is the way the land was secured, according to Greg Lein of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ State Lands Division, who oversees the Forever Wild program.
“This was the first time the board had been presented with an opportunity where it was less than fee-simple purchase,” Lein said. “Some members of the board questioned whether this was a Forever Wild project because it wasn’t forever. This sparked a pretty healthy discussion. In the end the board recognized that the law and the Legislature and crafters of this amendment were wise enough to give the board this flexible tool. The law allows them to buy interest in land. The board acknowledged this was the opportunity in front of them. The people with the lease were offering the remainder of the lease. The people who owned the dirt were not offering the dirt. The board acknowledged that if they didn’t do anything that we were going to lose these 61,000 acres from the WMA system.
“It would have been a significant blow. The last two years, we’ve already lost a lot of land out of the WMA system. If it weren’t for Forever Wild and the progress made this past 15 years, we’d really be feeling these losses. We lost the Covington WMA. We lost the West Jefferson WMA. That was more than 50,000 acres.”
The lease agreement also gives Forever Wild an upper hand should the land become available for fee-simple purchase.
“The board recognized this was the first important step – secure the lease,” Lein said. “Then if the dirt becomes available, they can contemplate that opportunity. What they’ve done is bought 93 years to negotiate it being forever wild. That’s a long time from the public hunting standpoint. Ninety-three years is longer than we’ve had a public hunting program in Alabama. The fact they got this for less than $100 an acre is really a leveraged acquisition.”
Another advantage of this particular lease agreement is the state will not require any startup costs because the associated parcels are already part of the WMA system.
Corky Pugh, Director of the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, said the lease negotiated by Forever Wild changes the management strategy for those WMAs.
“That long-term lease allows us to manage that land with a long-term view and make investments in terms of on-the-ground improvements that we could not make with a shorter-term arrangement,” Pugh said. “It also gives the hunting public assurance that this land will be available for a good, long time for hunting.
“Additionally, when you consider the absolute need for us to provide opportunities for the rank-and-file hunters of this state, it’s only growing more significant with the current economic conditions.”
The proximity of Cahaba River and Mulberry Fork to the metropolitan Birmingham area made this transaction even more important. But the impact ripples throughout the state.
“Another thing about Alabama investing in public hunting opportunities is the very large economic impact that hunting has on the state,” Pugh said. “State and local taxes that come from hunting-related direct expenditures are astronomical. It varies from large retail establishments in cities all the way to the smallest remote towns in the state. During hunting season, a lot of those places are thriving because of the opportunity for people to hunt.
“The economic impact of hunting in Alabama is $1.4 billion annually. That’s $847 million in direct expenditures and the sales tax alone is $83 million dollars. That’s a major impact.”
Lein said if the lease agreement had not been finalized, those WMA properties would have soon been in private hands.
“We never go around trumpeting how close to the precipice we are, but this was a heckuva save, a heckuva save,” Lein said. “Molpus is in the business to make their clients money. They were the ones who had withdrawn the West Jefferson lease and indicated this would happen to Mulberry Fork and Cahaba River if a lease could not be negotiated.
“I personally like these departures from the normal because it shows how flexible Forever Wild can be. I think that sparks the thought process from the staff and board and contemplate what else the program could be doing. We’ve had a lot of calls from out of state wanting to know about this project. Kentucky called. Michigan called. They wanted to know how we did this.”
Lein also said companies with land in Alabama have also inquired about the process involved in managing land for different uses.
“We’ve been managing WMAs for years where we don’t have all the rights,” he said. “We’re often managing under someone else’s timber rights. We know how to do that. That’s not a bad thing. It’s nicer to have full control. But when you’re trying to get a lot of bang for your buck, this is a really interesting opportunity.
“Here we are talking about the reauthorization of Forever Wild and we’ve got a brand new example of other opportunities that might be out there if Forever Wild is continued.”
UPDATE: Greg Lein is now Alabama State Parks Division Director; Corky Pugh is retired from the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division.