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Keeping land Forever Wild

Program preserves vital disappearing habitat for all

By John N. Felsher

Canoeing on the Bartram Canoe Trail. Photo by billy pope
Canoeing on the Bartram Canoe Trail. Photo by billy pope

Each year, more than a million outdoors enthusiasts traverse a state blessed with an incredible variety of habitats from tidal marshes to mountaintop forests. Many of them visit the more than 1.3 million acres of public land in Alabama. Many sportsmen hunt on 37 state wildlife management areas totaling more than 775,000 acres.

The state of Alabama owns some wildlife management areas, but leases significant acreage from timber companies or other large landowners. As part of the lease, these landowners permit the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to manage the properties for public use. However, companies change ownership, leadership or focus periodically. Consequently, the state sometimes loses access to formerly public properties. When the state loses wilderness lands previously open to the public, those lands frequently disappear forever.

Fortunately, the state controls thousands of acres in the Forever Wild program. As the name implies, these properties will never go under a bulldozer or concrete, but will remain natural and forever open to the public for recreation.

“Forever Wild is a state operated land acquisition program with the purpose of securing lands for public recreation as wildlife management areas, state parks, nature preserves or recreational areas,” says Chris Smith, the ADCNR state lands manager in Montgomery. “Some WMAs draw a lot of out-of-state people who come here to hunt. They spend a lot of money. With leased property, we’re constantly under the possibility of losing parcels. Lands in Forever Wild are state-owned properties that we can preserve and keep forever wild.”

Forever Wild began with a constitutional amendment approved by the voters in 1992. In 2012, 73 percent of the voters reaffirmed their desire to keep the program going. Since 1992, the program set aside more than 241,000 acres in 25 counties for an array of public recreational activities. Besides hunters and fishermen, many hikers, boaters, paddlers, horseback riders, cyclists, bird watchers, history buffs and other outdoors enthusiasts visit these lands each year. The system includes more than 220 miles of hiking trails plus numerous canoe trails among other recreational opportunities.

“Not all Forever Wild properties are wildlife management areas, but roughly 88 percent of the Forever Wild Land Trust property is within a WMA somewhere in the state,” Smith says. “About three percent are additions to other historic parks or nature centers. Less than one percent of those properties are additions to existing state parks. The rest are not quite big enough to be in the WMA system, but we manage them as nature preserves and recreational areas.”

The system includes caves, mountainous habitat, coastal prairies, marshes, swamps, rivers – just about every habitat type found in Alabama. Some major proprieties in the system include Barbour, Cahaba River, Coosa and Perdido WMAs. One of the best public deer hunting properties in the state, Barbour WMA covers 28,199 acres near Clayton in the transition zone between the Black Belt Region and the coastal plain of southeastern Alabama. It frequently produces whitetail bucks exceeding 200 pounds.

“In 2006, Field and Stream magazine named Barbour WMA one of the top whitetail destinations in the nation,” notes Bill Gray, the ADCNR wildlife biologist for that part of the state. “It has some hardwood drains, upland pines, swamps, hills and hollows.”

The William R. Ireland/Cahaba River WMA covers 40,504 acres in Bibb and Shelby counties near West Blocton. Coosa WMA spreads across 32,624 acres of Coosa County near Rockford along the Coosa River. The Perdido River WMA includes 17,337 acres on the Alabama side of the Perdido River, which separates Alabama from Florida near Gateswood.

“In July 2014, we closed on a 460-acre parcel adjacent to a county park in Shelby County that has river frontage along the Cahaba River,” Smith says. “We’re thinking about putting in some canoe launches and take-out points. That’s a beautiful river to float. We’re looking to open a canoe trail that will span about 19 miles along the Perdido River in 2015. We’re working to improve some roads that will provide good access to trailheads, plus canoe put-in and take-out points.”

Photo by Billy Pope
Photo by Billy Pope
Preserving irreplaceable properties and habitats

At Blakeley State Park near Spanish Fort, visitors can walk among fortifications used by Union and Confederate soldiers when they fought one of the last major battles of the Civil War in April 1865. Many of these fortifications still look almost exactly like they did when the war ended a few weeks later.

Sometimes called the Grand Canyon of the South, the Walls of Jericho area in Jackson County holds some of the most scenic and ecologically significant property in the state. Five tracts totaling about 16,363 acres sit adjacent to James D. Martin-Skyline WMA near Scottsboro along the Tennessee state line. About 200 years ago, Davy Crocket hunted these hills and valleys. Today, hikers, photographers, birdwatchers and horseback riders can explore numerous trails or follow the gorge along the Paint Rock River.

“We try to preserve unique, irreplaceable properties and habitats, like the Mobile-Tensaw Delta,” Smith explains. “We also do some habitat restoration work on some properties, such as replanting them in native vegetation. Some properties are already beautiful, unique properties, but it’s rare to find a Forever Wild property that doesn’t need some type of enhancement or restoration.”

Mountain biking is a popular activity on Forever Wild trails. Photo by Billy Pope
Mountain biking is a popular activity on Forever Wild trails. Photo by Billy Pope

Practically in the shadow of downtown Mobile, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta spreads across about 250,000 acres of wilderness, second in size only to the Mississippi River for river delta wetlands in North America. Forever Wild preserves more than 50,000 acres in this maze of bayous, creeks, lakes, swamps, marshes and estuaries. In 1974, Congress declared the delta a National Natural Landmark.

From north to south, the delta transitions from bottomland hardwood forests pockmarked by numerous streams and lakes to cypress swamps. The lower delta opens into an enormous network of bays and bayous bordered by fresh and brackish marshes at the northern edge of Mobile Bay. The area provides homes to one of the largest concentrations of black bears in Alabama, plus numerous waterfowl, wading birds, raptors, whitetail deer, otters, alligators and many other creatures.

The Forever Wild program also tries to preserve or restore habitat vital to endangered species. For instance, the program owns two tracts in Monroe County totaling 4,376 acres that provide crucial habitat for endangered Red Hills salamanders plus other rare plants and animals. The Red Hills Tracts consist mainly of upland pines and mixed forests north of Monroeville.

“The Red Hills Tracts were commercial timber properties when Forever Wild bought them,” Smith says. “We’re restoring the habitat to what it was and monitoring the salamanders.”

The Forever Wild Land Trust does not take private land away from owners. In fact, the law specifically dictates that Forever Wild can only buy land from willing sellers, but anyone can nominate a property as a Forever Wild candidate. After a review process, the state can then make an offer to buy the property at fair market value.

Once a property becomes part of the Forever Wild system, state land managers determine what to do with it. They might create a wildlife management area, public park or other recreational facility. Then, property managers plan what enhancements or restorations they want to do such as building hiking or canoeing trails.

“We’re always looking for new acquisitions,” Smith advises. “We’re close to closing on about 3,000 acres along the Sipsey River in Tuscaloosa County. There’s already a 3,000-acre tract along the Sipsey River. It’s very popular for hunting and horseback riding. We should be able to add that new property to Forever Wild in the next four to six months. That’s going to give us about 40 river miles on the Sipsey where we can put in some canoe launches and take-out points. People will be able to float down the river and hunt or fish.”

For more information on the Alabama Forever Wild program and to see an interactive map of the properties, visit alabamaforeverwild.com.

How you can help preserve more valuable habitat

By John N. Felsher

Forever Wild does not receive any tax dollars. Money for the Forever Wild Land Trust fund comes from interest earned by the Alabama Trust Fund, mostly through monthly royalty payments from oil and gas extraction. The program receives 10 percent of that interest annually, up to $15 million.

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People can also help fund Forever Wild programs and preserve more land by buying a Friends of Forever Wild car license plate. Most of that money goes directly toward the purchase of properties for the Forever Wild system. These lands could become part of an existing park, wildlife management area, historical area or a separate nature preserve.

Anyone who buys a Forever Wild car tag directly supports Forever Wild land acquisitions,” explains Chris Smith, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources lands manager. “All of that money goes directly to the land acquisition fund to protect our Alabama natural heritage.”

To learn more about this program, click HERE.

Vintage Motorcycles

Barber Museum is home to the world’s largest collection

By David Haynes

Eclectic design and attention to the finest of details help the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum stand in a class by itself.
Eclectic design and attention to the finest of details help the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum stand in a class by itself.

|To view more pictures click here|

|Click here to view a video interview with Mr. Barber|

If you want to experience Leonardo De Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” in person you’ll need to buy a ticket to Paris and visit the Louvre. A personal viewing to ponder the moody, swirling colors of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” requires a trip to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

But to marvel in the presence of the chrome and black steel of a rare 1951 Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle in pristine condition, Birmingham, Alabama, would be your destination of choice, where the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum houses the largest collection of vintage motorcycles in the world!

Earlier this year, the Guinness Book of World Records officially recognized the Barber collection as the world’s largest. According to Museum Director Jeff Ray, the museum currently has more than 1,340 motorcycles in its collection with approximately 700 on display at any one time in its sprawling, five-story building, with new bikes and cars added every week.

George Barber stands on the ground floor of the largest motorcycle collection in the world.
George Barber stands on the ground floor of the largest motorcycle collection in the world.

The museum employs a staff of 22 people, including five full-time and one part-time restoration technicians who continuously restore and maintain machines in the collection. Nearly all of the motorcycles on display could be running and ridden within an hour. At present the technicians have 13 major restorations under way with another 200-plus in the warehouse awaiting some type of restoration or conservation, Ray says.

But as impressive as the museum’s collection of vintage and rare motorcycles and racing cars is, it is only one component of the 830-acre Barber Motorsports Park, located near Leeds on the east side of Birmingham. Directly adjacent to the museum is a world-class 2.38-mile race track where national and international competitions are held several times a year for both motorcycles and cars. The museum is so close to the track that one entire glass wall of the 5-story museum overlooks a sweeping turn where visitors browsing in the museum can watch motorcycles and sports cars zoom past on the track below.

According to Ray, the various events hosted by the museum and track annually pump around $100 million into the local economy. Over the past 10 years this had totaled about $1.1 billion, he added. The two biggest events each year are the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama in the spring and the Barber Vintage Festival in October, each of which brings about 65,000 visitors to the park.

Aside from these major events, Ray says the track is used approximately 285 days in a typical year with private or corporate events, track days, a Porsche sport driving school and other public events.

In recent years the Barber Vintage Festival has become almost an annual pilgrimage event for many in the motorcycling community from around the country and around the world. This year’s Vintage Festival – the 10th Annual – will be the weekend of Oct. 10-12. This motorcycling mecca feels like a three-ring circus of activities and rapid-fire events that offers something for everyone in the motorcycling world.

WallOfDeath

At last year’s Vintage Festival there were near continuous races featuring vintage motorcycles racing on the track as well as vintage motocross and other dirt-oriented events. Surrounding the beehive of activity on the track were vendor and manufacturers’ display areas, one of the largest and best-attended motorcycle swap meets anywhere. There was even a motordrome “Wall of Death” featuring riders on vintage bikes defying gravity as they ride sideways around the 30-foot-diameter wooden barrel. So much is going on at once there’s literally more to see than one person could take in without being in two places at once!

The museum, track and park are here primarily due to the efforts of George Barber, the longtime head of Birmingham-based Barber Dairies. He raced Porsches in the 1960s, including 63 first place finishes, and began collecting and restoring vintage sports cars in 1969 (The Barber Museum today has the largest collection of Lotus sports cars in the world).

Soon Barber’s interest turned to collecting and restoring vintage motorcycles and his collection grew until in 1994 it became the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum when it was granted a 501(c)3 not-for-profit status. A year later the museum opened to the public for the first time, being housed in an almost hidden building on Birmingham’s Southside, where it operated until moving to its present location in 2003.

“The track was built a year or so before we built the museum and it really started on its own with Porsche coming here and having their classes here,” says Barber. “They have been with us ever since and they have around 160 days of Porsche school every year, which is really fabulous.”

Over the years vehicles from the Barber collection have been featured in numerous shows, including the famed “Art of the Motorcycle” at the Guggenheim’s New York and Bilbao, Spain, locations as well as the Field Museum in Chicago. Another show at the Birmingham Museum of Art featured a special exhibition devoted entirely to motorcycles from the collection.

Barber himself will be inducted into the prestigious American Motorcyclist Association Motorcycle Hall of Fame on Oct. 17.

Today visitors to the museum can see bikes ranging from a 1902 Steffey, which was driven by a leather belt, to modern-era production consumer and racetrack machines. These include bikes from 20 different countries representing over 200 manufacturers. A day browsing through these beautifully restored machines is akin to walking through the history of motorcycling. Motorcycle enthusiasts and non-riders alike will undoubtedly find the experience rewarding and satisfying, if only for the appreciation of the craft involved in preserving these unique machines in their original state.

And the work goes on. Barber says future plans include building an autocross track, installing a walkway from the museum’s second floor to the gazebo and observation area to allow visitors to watch races, and constructing a 60,000 to 80,000 square foot addition to the museum.

For more information on Barber Motorsports Park, the museum and upcoming events visit www.barbermuseum.org.

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