Online and otherwise, there’s a lot of information out there, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell what sources are credible. With millions of people relying on Social Security, scammers target audiences who are looking for program and benefit information.
The law that addresses misleading Social Security and Medicare advertising prohibits people or non-government businesses from using words or emblems that mislead others. Their advertising can’t lead people to believe that they represent, are somehow affiliated with, or endorsed or approved by Social Security or the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (Medicare).
People are often misled by advertisers who use the terms “Social Security” or “Medicare.” Often, these companies offer Social Security services for a fee, even though the same services are available directly from Social Security free of charge. These services include getting:
A corrected Social Security card showing a person’s married name;
A Social Security card to replace a lost card;
A Social Security Statement; and
A Social Security number for a child.
If you receive misleading information about Social Security, send the complete ad, including the envelope, to:
Five years ago, many people in the electric industry viewed solar energy as a kind of “boutique” resource––more an energy accessory than a real power supply option. But in the last half-decade, as the costs to install solar went down and electric utilities gained experience with this unique energy resource, there has been a dramatic transformation, and solar energy has made the jump to the big leagues.
At local electric cooperatives, consumer-members were asking questions about whether this new technology would be suitable either for their own home or for the cooperative.
Given the high cost to install solar, electric co-ops had questions about the economic feasibility of solar and its effect on the electric system. Even with federal tax incentives, the cost of solar was not competitive with other resources such as wind and natural gas.
Engineers also had questions. What happens to the system when the sun doesn’t shine? Or even more tricky: what happens on those days when multiple clouds sail by, making a strobe light out of the sun?
To answer these questions, co-ops started installing small arrays, analyzing costs and efficiency. Five years ago, compared to other resources, many concluded solar was still simply too expensive.
The cost of panels and equipment was not the only reason solar was expensive. There were also soft costs, like training, business processes and software. There was little standardization among solar projects––every project was unique. Engineers and resource planners, unfamiliar with this technology, needed training and technical assistance. Financial partners still needed convincing when it came to investing in large-scale solar projects.
As the solar industry started growing, thanks in part to tax credits and other policy incentives, the cost of solar panels and other equipment started declining; the economics started changing.
In 2014, 17 electric co-ops joined with their national trade organization, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), to collaborate on solar installations in 10 states whose combined solar capacity would be 23 megawatts. The goal of the project was to make solar more affordable for electric co-ops by driving down the soft costs.
The project, which received funding from the Department of Energy, aimed to create a network of experts within the cooperative community. By sharing information and expertise, co-op experts could make solar installations easier and less financially risky for other co-ops to follow suit.
Over the course of this project, the cost of solar fell dramatically. For example, one co-op that built a solar installation at the beginning of the project and another one two years later, found the cost was half what it had been two years earlier. In 2013, the cost was $4.50 per watt of installed solar, and in 2016, the cost was $1.74 per watt.
As more electric co-ops gained experience and shared information about what worked and what didn’t, the risks that come with innovation and change also went down. Solar became more doable for cooperatives large and small.
With the decline in costs and the increase in knowledge and understanding, solar has taken off in rural communities. The proof is in the numbers. Today, America’s electric co-ops own or purchase more than nine times as much photovoltaic solar power as they did in 2013. And by the end of 2019, the combined solar capacity of America’s electric cooperatives is expected to surpass a gigawatt.
Tracy Warren writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives. From growing suburbs to remote farming communities, electric co-ops serve as engines of economic development for 42 million Americans across 56 percent of the nation’s landscape.
When 2nd Lt. Kayla Freeman wore her wings for the first time on the stage of Fort Rucker’s Army Aviation school, she didn’t consider how historically impactful the moment was.
Freeman, whose June 21 graduation made her the first black female pilot in the Alabama National Guard, graduated from Tuskegee University in 2016 with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace science engineering.
“I didn’t think about making history when I started this journey. I just wanted to do the best that I could do and hopefully inspire a few people along the way,” she says.
That’s a goal she has also accomplished, with Freeman being inundated with congratulations, well-wishes, and messages of appreciation in the few weeks after her achievement.
Freeman said she was honored to have her wings pinned by a longtime hero and fellow history-maker, retired Col. Christine “Nickey” Knighton.
Knighton was the second black woman in the Department of Defense to earn her aviator wings, the first from Georgia, and also the first woman in the U.S. Army to command a tactical combat arms battalion.
“Col. Knighton has been an inspiration to me since college,” Freeman says. “I felt that it was only right to have her pin me.”
Freeman also lists Knighton as one of her main role models, along with her own grandfather, and the pioneering female Tuskegee Airmen like Mildred Carter.
Like Knighton before her, Freeman’s inspirations led her to attend Tuskegee University and enroll in the historic institute’s ROTC program. She said she knew since she was a child that she wanted to fly, and said it was discipline, perseverance, and faith that helped her achieve that goal.
“You can’t let mistakes and setbacks keep you down,” she says. “Learn from them and continue moving forward. Most importantly keep God first and He will direct your path.”
Maj. Gen. Sheryl Gordon applauded Freeman’s historic accomplishment. Gordon is the first female general officer in the Alabama National Guard and is now the first female to serve as its adjutant general.
“We take the ideals of equal opportunity very seriously,” Gordon says, “and we’re extremely proud of 2nd Lt. Freeman’s achievements. She is further proof that we don’t see race or gender in the Alabama Guard – we see soldiers and airmen and their potential.
“She has worked very hard to earn those wings, and that’s a great example for all of us.”
Currently at Fort Hood preparing to deploy to the Middle East as a platoon leader in the Alabama National Guard’s 1-169th Aviation Battalion, Freeman’s mind is on the mission. After that, she said, her plans are simple: keep going.
“I just plan to continue to develop my skills as an officer and aviator, as well as mentoring others.”
In her civilian career, Freeman is an aerospace engineer at U.S. Army Aviation Development Test Activity at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.
Submit Your Images!November Theme: “Veterans”Deadline for Nov: Sept. 29. Submit photos online: www.alabamaliving.coop/submit-photo/ or send color photos with a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Photos, Alabama Living, P.O. Box 244014 Montgomery, AL 36124. Rules: Alabama Living will pay $10 for photos that best match our theme of the month. Photos may also be published on our website at www.alabamaliving.coop and on our Facebook page. Alabama Living is not responsible for lost or damaged photos.
Co-ops and scientists team up on an innovative approach to energy and the environment.
Later this year, five teams of scientists and engineers from around the world will start packing up and relocating their laboratories to a patchwork of gravel lots next to a coal-fired power plant in northeast Wyoming. Their mission: nothing less than finding beneficial ways to reuse greenhouse gas that’s released into the Earth’s atmosphere.
They aim to grab the carbon dioxide gas from the burning coal before it can contribute to climate change, and turn it into something that might be part of everyday life, like concrete, plastic or liquid fuel.
Dan Walsh sees value in the Wyoming research even beyond reducing the environmental effects of coal plants. Walsh is the senior power supply and generation director for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). He says it would be great if we stopped thinking of the carbon in carbon dioxide as nothing more than waste.
“We see a need to take carbon dioxide and turn it into a useful product,” says Walsh. That won’t only reduce waste at coal power plants, he says, but also for users of other carbon-based fuels like natural gas and gasoline.
“The electric power industry is no longer the largest generator of carbon. The transportation industry now owns that title,” says Walsh. “We have to do something, not just for power, but for the planet to come up with a way to utilize carbon dioxide in a beneficial way.”
A breakthrough for humanity
The Wyoming launching pad for that high-flying goal brings together far-flung partners—from the state’s governor, to electric co-ops, to a group that awards multi-million dollar prizes “to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.”
Two years ago, the XPRIZE, a private innovation group based in California, announced $20 million in prizes “for transformational approaches to converting (carbon dioxide) emissions into valuable products.” The final prizes will be awarded in 2020.
In May of this year, XPRIZE narrowed the applicants to 10. Five of those will be setting up shop later this year on the Wyoming test site. The other five will be operating out of Alberta, Canada.
Electric co-ops have a special stake in the Wyoming test site: the power plant is owned by Basin Electric Power Cooperative, which is based in North Dakota; and financial support has come from another co-op, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association based in Colorado, as well as the NRECA.
The XPRIZE finalists that will be building their labs at the Wyoming site are:
BREATHE—from India, working to produce methanol, which can be used as a liquid fuel.
C4X—from China, developing new ways to produce plastics.
Carbon Capture Machine—from Scotland, producing building materials.
CarbonCure—from Canada, specializing in cement and concrete processes and products.
Carbon Upcycling UCLA—from California, making a substitute for concrete.
During the next six months, those teams will be setting up “mini-factories” at the Wyoming test site, says Jason Begger, executive director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority, which oversees the site, whose formal name is the Wyoming Integrated Test Center.
Begger says the teams will be setting up to access the ductwork and piping providing flue gas from the power plant, which contains about 12 percent carbon dioxide. They’ll be developing the technology to separate and convert the carbon dioxide from the flue gas and show that their projects can turn waste carbon into useful products.
The test center project started with a state government initiative to plan for the future of the region’s coal resources, and has been quickly connecting to the larger worldwide effort to capture and use carbon dioxide. In June, the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority formally partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Carbon Capture Center, a testing site in Alabama established about nine years ago. That agreement will mean closer cooperation with the Carbon Capture Center’s experience and its network of experts.
Connecting with other researchers
The Department of Energy’s Carbon Capture Program Manager John Litynski explains how the agreement benefits the Carbon Capture Center as well: “We can only test up to 1.5 megawatts, which we call small pilot scale. The Wyoming test center has the capability to test up to 18 megawatts … which we would call large pilot.”
For years, the Department of Energy has been exploring ways to remove the carbon dioxide from power plant emissions. The basic problem they’ve been trying to solve is that the process is expensive and uses up a huge share of the electricity produced by the power plant in the first place. One of the longstanding ideas for managing greenhouse gases has been to remove the carbon dioxide from the power plant emissions, then inject into underground rock formations, an idea called carbon capture and storage.
But the XPRIZE and the Wyoming test center take the different approach of finding something more useful to do with the carbon dioxide than storing it permanently underground.
The Department of Energy has recently been adding the quest for new uses of carbon dioxide to its research. The main focus of the DOE effort is to search for better ways to remove the carbon dioxide from power plant emissions. The DOE’s Litynski says that this year the department is spending $90 million to research carbon capture. It’s spending about $12 million on carbon utilization, up from about $1 million three years ago. This summer, DOE issued a $13 million request for research projects on “Novel methods for making products from carbon dioxide or coal.”
While headlines about coal and climate change have been generating controversy around the globe, the Wyoming test center is heading in a different direction. NRECA’s Dan Walsh credits the center’s international collaboration of government, private groups and electric co-ops with “a great vision” for rethinking one of the world’s biggest energy dilemmas.
Paul Wesslund writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives. From growing suburbs to remote farming communities, electric co-ops serve as engines of economic development for 42 million Americans across 56 percent of the nation’s landscape.
Many of our outdoor dogs could use extra bit of TLC. The primary concern is safety. They need to be in a confined space. Four dogs were shot and killed in our tiny neighborhood in the last 3 years for trespassing. A few months ago, as I was coming home from work, I watched a young German shepherd proudly trotting back from a chicken house with a chicken in its mouth. Next time, he may not be so lucky and will run a risk of getting shot.
An ideal boundary is a physical boundary, like a good quality fence, 4 to 6 feet tall. These fences are not hard to build. In deciding on the height of your fence, take into consideration your dog’s jumping or climbing abilities.
Half to one acre of fenced area will be sufficient in most cases. The cost is not exorbitant. One can plant evergreen trees along the fence to make their house an island of tranquility and increase their property value.
The perimeter can also be established with an “invisible fence.” For some highly impulsive dogs, the wireless fences may not work. When they are chasing something, they simply ignore the electronic signal but when things settle and it is time to come home, they don’t want to risk coming back though the radio field again. Please talk to a professional.
Placing a dog on a restraint, such as a chain or tether, can be OK if done for a short period, or while supervised, and if the tether is secured in such a way that it can’t become entangled with other objects. An otherwise friendly and docile dog, when kept continuously chained or intensively confined in any way, can become neurotic, unhappy, anxious and often aggressive. Also, collars should be comfortable and fitted properly.
After the perimeter comes the concern of shelter. Our summers are brutal and our winters can be challenging. A good rule of thumb: if it isn’t tolerable for you, it probably isn’t tolerable for them. A simple hut with raised flooring can be easily built over a weekend. It is wise to block north, south and west sides of the shelter. If constructing a building is not in your plan, buy the biggest enclosure you can afford. Place the enclosure about 6 to 8 inches above ground on a small deck. If you don’t have a garage full of power tools, this a valid excuse to buy some.
Be careful about providing heat for the winter months in the shelter. A friend’s mobile home caught fire from the heating lamp in the dog shelter. Have a qualified electrician handle any electrical work.
Dogs are social animals! Even outdoor dogs need regular human interaction. If possible, bring the dogs inside after dark. In the end, let’s not forget them outside!
Goutam Mukherjee, DVM, MS, Ph.D. (Dr. G) has been a veterinarian for more than 30 years. He works part time at Grant Animal Clinic and is a member of North Alabama Electric Cooperative.
Varied terrain makes Alabama a mountain biking destination
By John N. Felsher | Photos by Billy Pope, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Many Americans grew up riding bicycles as their primary form of independent transportation until they learned how to drive automobiles. In recent years, cycling enthusiasts have taken their sport to higher levels, literally and figuratively. Today, Alabama offers riders abundant trails running through terrain as varied as sandy beaches and mountaintops.
“When it comes to mountain biking, Alabama is a hidden gem,” says Philip Darden, manager of James Bros Bikes in Opelika and the Alabama representative on the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association (SORBA) executive board. “The state really has a lot to offer bikers from beginner to expert levels. The quality of rides is exceptional. I’ve ridden many different trails and some of my favorites are right here in Alabama.”
In 1989, SORBA (sorba.org) formed to promote mountain biking and added regional chapters for cycling aficionados. Many association members periodically volunteer to build and maintain biking trails on public properties.
“I really encourage anyone who wants to try mountain biking to contact one of the riding associations,” suggests Mary Anne Swanstrom, president of SORBA-Huntsville (sorbahuntsville.org). “Mountain biking is not about speed. It’s about the experience and the camaraderie of riding with other people. I’ve seen children as young as three years old ride bikes that don’t even have pedals. The children push their way along.”
Learning to ride
People who want to try mountain biking shouldn’t buy the first cycle they see in a department store. People riding rugged mountain trails need strong equipment that can take abuse.
“There’s a big difference between riding a bicycle around the neighborhood and going on a mountain trail,” says Marcus Tillman, trail director for the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association (neaba.net) and the Anniston recreation trails manager. “Quality mountain bicycles start at about $400 to $600. More advanced bikes might cost $1,000. I’ve even known people to pay $15,000 for a custom state-of-the-art bike.”
Writing a big check doesn’t necessarily put a rider on the correct seat. Like riders, bikes also come in varied sizes. Darden recommends visiting a bike shop to get the proper equipment specifically suited to one person.
“In the last few years, mountain biking equipment has really gotten much better,” Darden says. “A prospective mountain biker needs a bike that fits that person’s size. People at a bike shop know how to put a bike together for a specific person. A correctly sized bike is more enjoyable to ride.”
Besides the bike, a rider needs a good helmet, which might cost $40 to $60. Many experienced riders also recommend wearing full-fingered gloves with padded palms and comfortable biking shorts with chamois pads. A new cyclist might also buy a small backpack to hold valuables, snacks, cell phone, maps and other items while riding.
Even with the best equipment, someone who hasn’t ridden a bicycle in years should not immediately hit the toughest mountain trails. Start pedaling around the neighborhood to build up leg muscles and endurance while becoming familiar with the equipment. Then, ride an easy trail, perhaps one with a few small hills, and progress from there.
“Someone getting back into biking should ease into it and learn how to use the equipment properly,” Tillman says. “Riders need to become comfortable with when and how to shift gears properly. People also need to practice braking. Grabbing just the front brake is usually not a good idea. People need to learn how to use the rear brakes and feather the front brakes.”
All kinds of terrain
Fortunately, riders ranging in skill levels from beginner to expert can find many trails coursing through diverse habitat all across Alabama. Many city, county and state parks offer trails of varied lengths and degrees of difficulty. In addition, cyclists can ride trails through many national forest or Forever Wild properties.
The largest state park in Alabama, Oak Mountain sprawls across 9,940 acres just south of Birmingham. Cyclists at all skill levels can ride several trails. Experienced riders like the Double Oak Trail, also called the Red Trail, which runs approximately 22 miles through mountainous terrain. In 2010, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) placed Oak Mountain on its list of Epic Rides, making it one of the “must ride” trails in the world.
Chewacla State Park south of Auburn offers riders more than 30 trail miles. Named for the Central Alabama Mountain Pedalers (www.camp-sorba.org) who helped build and maintain it, the CAMP Trail runs about a mile through relatively flat terrain around the campground. Other trails, like the eight-mile long For Pete’s Sake Trail, wander through rugged rocky terrain.
“As a former president of CAMP, I’m most familiar with Chewacla,” Darden says. “We want to build trails that are easily accessible so people can jump into the sport without any previous experience and feel comfortable riding. We also want riders to have opportunities to progress in their skill levels so they continue to grow as mountain bikers.”
CAMP and other volunteers worked to construct a dual slalom trail, the first of its kind in the state and unique to most of the Southeast. The Chewacla trail will host the Southeastern Collegiate Cycling Conference’s 2018 Mountain Bike Championship in early October.
The Coldwater Mountain Doug Ghee Nature Preserve and Recreation Area (www.alabamaforeverwild.com/coldwater-mountain) covers 4,183 acres of Forever Wild property in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains by Anniston. Because of its status with the IMBA, people from surrounding states and even foreign countries frequently visit Coldwater Mountain, giving the Anniston area a tourism boost.
“The greater Anniston area has more than a hundred miles of trails,” Tillman confirms. “In terms of habitat, Alabama is one of the most varied states in the union, but the crown jewel is Coldwater Mountain. It has 37 miles of trails right now, but when we finish, it will have 70.”
The new Duck River Reservoir in Cullman just opened a 20-mile hiking and mountain biking trail that circles the entire lake. Susan Eller with the Cullman Economic Development Agency says it’s already attracted cyclists from across northern Alabama, and they intend to market it to local residents but also to create tourism dollars.
South of Anniston, Cheaha State Park offers incredible riding opportunities. Cheaha Mountain, the highest point in Alabama, reaches 2,413 feet. People can also bike through parts of the Talladega National Forest, including Coleman Lake Recreation Area north of Heflin.
In northern Alabama, many people ride the trails at Monte Sano State Park near Huntsville. In the fall, park visitors enjoy spectacular views of mountains emblazoned with colorful foliage. Riders can choose among 14 miles of trail that range from very easy to extremely difficult. The adjacent Monte Sano Land Trust Preserve offers another 20 trail miles.
“Northern Alabama has some wonderful bike trails,” Swanstrom says. “On Monte Sano, the terrain is rocky so people need to have some ability to ride the trails. Mountain biking is a wonderful way to enjoy nature and the mountain scenery while getting good exercise. It’s a very social sport, whether people just get out with a few friends to ride or they join hundreds of other people participating in an organized ride.”
Although lacking mountains, cyclists can still find ample cycling opportunities in southern Alabama. In Mobile County, Chickasabogue Park provides 17 miles of trails wandering through hardwood forests, sandy pine flats and over bridges crossing lowlands. In southeastern Alabama, Dothan coordinated with the Alabama State Lands Division to build a 319-acre park that features 10 miles of trails.
“The Dothan Forever Wild trails are multi-use, but their primary purpose is for mountain biking,” says Evan Lawrence with Alabama State Lands. “The terrain is somewhat flat, but the city added some features. The trails go through mixed hardwood and pine forests and cross Beaver Creek, which is very swampy.”
All over Alabama, cyclists can usually find a place to ride close to home with a quick internet search. For Alabama state park information, see www.alapark.com.
Flower photos help daughter connect to mom with Alzheimer’s
By M.J. Ellington | Photos by Elmore DeMott
What started out as a trip of curiosity to take a few photographs led one Alabama woman to a professional career as a nature photographer.
The career, in turn, led Elmore DeMott to a personal commitment to capture an image of a different special flower each day to share with her mother, Elmore Inscoe, who has Alzheimer’s disease.
The convergence of DeMott’s sophisticated nature and plantation burn photographs and “Flowers for Mom,” her ongoing daily photographic gift to her mother, will be on display in September at a Tuscaloosa art gallery. Proceeds from sales of her work will benefit Black Warrior Riverkeeper, a nonprofit that advocates for clean water.
DeMott began photographing one flower each day as a way to have a daily personal connection with her mother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2016. The result is a topic that draws on Inscoe’s fond memories but also acts as a link to today through her daughter’s work.
DeMott said the discipline of achieving the perfect image of a new flower each day for her mother has been a challenge, but she said the impact on people outside her family has been a wonderful surprise.
“Never did I dream that ‘Flowers for Mom’ would be so far-reaching. People literally send me pictures and ideas from all over the world,” DeMott says. The daily contact with her mom is important and the search for a different flower, a different angle, the perfect light in which to photograph have made DeMott look at things differently now.
“Much to the chagrin of my youngest daughter, I like to set a background as much as the foreground. So doing can take a photo from average to amazing. Unlike furniture, one cannot move a tree, so there is a lot of luck involved in having things that will line up and give a great background,” DeMott wrote in a “Flowers for Mom,” blog post on her website. The particular flower she refers to in the post is a bright pink dogwood tree blossom captured in the rain.
Gleaning from the gardens
DeMott’s mother is an outdoorswoman from Montgomery who, with her husband, Jim Inscoe, bought and expanded the private Jasmine Hill Gardens near Wetumpka. The previous owners designed their garden as a private tribute to the flowers and statuary of Greece.
The Inscoes expanded the gardens and opened them for public access. Mrs. Inscoe also taught her daughter the art involved in taking care of and arranging beautiful flowers so much a part of the gardens.
Now, DeMott says her father, the family flower expert, gives her ideas for her mom’s flower photos and suggests places where she might want to check for a blossom. “It is fun now to walk through Jasmine Hill with my father. It gives me the greatest joy to talk about flowers with him in a positive way,” she says.
DeMott said she is touched by the feedback she gets from others. “In a positive way, it has been a beautiful thing to share through flowers, through art and speaking about the challenges our family is going through with Alzheimer’s disease,” DeMott says. “No matter what your hardships, you can share through flowers.”
How the girl who grew up in a nature-loving family evolved from a Vanderbilt University math graduate and banker into a photographer – who chronicles images in nature with a different angle – is a story with twists and turns that come together as art.
“Nature photography has always been my favorite because I’m outside,” says DeMott, who loved spending time outdoors on the property her family owned in Elmore County. One day, her husband, Miles DeMott, suggested she go with him to a controlled plantation burn and take her camera.
Before long, DeMott’s early photo exhibits of pine trees and her controlled burn fire shots began to take their place in gallery showings, and her career as a nature photographer took off. The controlled burn photographs, sometimes printed on aluminum, give a dramatic shimmering backdrop for the orange flames licking the undergrowth beneath towering pine trees.
DeMott still loves photographing pine trees she remembers from childhood. She and her husband are co-authors of a book of her pine tree photographs, “Chulee – Spirit of the Pine Tree.”She also drew on the experiences as a member of a quail-hunting family for the dramatic images in her controlled fire burn photographs.
Decades ago, the men in the family and their friends went quail hunting. In that era, women did not hunt quail, but the practice has opened for women in recent years, she says. Burning the undergrowth on quail plantations enables hunters to walk without obstacles, see clearly where they are going and enjoy nature. The controlled burns remove undergrowth that could catch fire rapidly with more damaging results if the source were from natural causes.
DeMott said she hopes her photographs encourage people to take time to see the beauty in nature as a way to rejuvenate. “Beauty is all around us. Seek it,” she says.
“Flowers for Mom” will be the focus of a fundraiser from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Sept. 14 at Harrison Galleries, 2315 University Blvd., Tuscaloosa.
The public is invited to the fundraiser to benefit the nonprofit Black Warrior Riverkeeper, which works to protect the endangered habitat along the Black Warrior River and its tributaries in 17 counties. The exhibit will be at the gallery through Sept. 21.
North central Alabama is a diverse natural area, with an abundance of caves, sinkholes and plants and wildlife unique to the region. But this part of the state has also rapidly exploded in population.
The Land Trust of North Alabama is a non-profit dedicated to conserving natural resources and preserving vulnerable land for people in the Tennessee Valley. Since the late 1980s, when the organization was formed to prevent the west side of Monte Sano Mountain near downtown Huntsville from being lost to sprawl, the Land Trust has preserved more than 7,000 acres of land in five counties throughout North Alabama, along with creating more than 70 miles of public trails.
“As our city grows, we need to be responsible about how we grow in order to save the beautiful natural spaces we have,” says Melanie Manson, marketing director for the Land Trust of North Alabama.
A portion of the acreage owned by Land Trust of North Alabama is held strictly for conservation value. But seven Land Trust preserves are open to the public, each offering unique natural features along with different amenities for people to enjoy. Currently there are seven nature preserves, all located in Madison County, owned by the Land Trust of North Alabama. Each preserve offers hiking trails with varying levels of difficulty.
These preserves receive visitors locally and from outside of North Alabama who are often unaware of the outdoor activities offered there. “North Alabama offers different terrain and unique natural features that can’t be found in other parts of the state,” Manson says.
Those who visit Land Trust public preserves can easily visit other nearby natural attractions, such as the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, Monte Sano State Park and Bankhead National Forest.
To maintain the preserves, a land manager and two land stewards continually monitor Land Trust properties for problems, along with hundreds of local volunteers who pick up litter and build trails. Besides maintaining the properties, Land Trust staff and volunteers also host educational programs.
“The purpose is to see nature firsthand and hopefully better understand its value,” Manson says. Adults and children can participate in a hiking series each spring and fall while also learning about the history of the area.
Although having a Land Trust membership, which funds the maintenance of the properties, is not required to access the preserves, some perks of membership include discounted tickets to Land Trust events, discounts at local businesses and access to a smartphone app that tracks your location along the trails.
Yearly fundraisers are held at Three Caves on Monte Sano Nature Preserve, including a concert series in the summer and a dinner and auction event in September.
Several new projects are in the pipeline, including the opening of an eighth public preserve near Gurley and future plans to turn a donated former farm in Jackson County on Keel Mountain into a public preserve.
The Land Trust is also partnering to build the Singing River Trail, an extensive regional walking and biking trail along the Tennessee River that will link communities in Madison, Limestone and Morgan counties.
Overall, Manson is pleased with the cooperation between the Land Trust and organizations at the local, regional and state levels to provide residents opportunities to participate in an active lifestyle by being out in nature. “We believe that if people explore the outdoors and experience nature, they will appreciate the importance of preserving it,” Manson says.
Dr. Doug Phillips is arguably the most passionate and vocal conservationist in Alabama. He’s an educator and an outdoorsman, and he’s become a familiar face as the host of “Discovering Alabama” for more than 30 years. He didn’t plan to be the face of the program, which is broadcast by Alabama Public Television and has won three Emmy Awards. He originally was going to be a consultant, but he is in his element in the backwoods of Alabama, and relishes the opportunity to educate viewers about the state’s natural heritage and biodiversity. – Allison Law
What got you interested in conservation?
The show we did on the Locust Fork River is a journey back to my childhood home, which was miles down a dirt road. It was just miles of woods and streams and countryside. I roamed it all and claimed it all and bonded with it all.
I went off to West Point, and that was a culture shock. From a country boy to New York. I was desperate to get back to Alabama. I was fortunate to get back and get into graduate school and get a Ph.D. in educational research, where I could really start making a difference in educating about Alabama’s natural wonders and environmental protection. That was still way back when, when the politics was not on the environmentalist’s side.
You didn’t start out with the TV show?
I started out developing school programs. We ran extended teacher environmental camps and worked with schools to adjust their curricula to get more environmental learning in there. I was literally taking teachers down the rivers, up the mountains and into the wilderness.
One of those teachers said to me, as I recall, “this is so inspiring. Now we see how to make connections between our math and our science with the real world, in an exciting way. But you’re going to be leading little groups of teachers forever. You need to start a TV show.”
If I heard it once, I heard it at least half a dozen times, when I would hawk the idea, “who would be interested in that?” It wasn’t a hunting or fishing show.
(But a) little film crew went out with me, and we shot a bunch of (footage) and put it in the pilot. Alabamians saw it and said, “Wow, what a wonderful state.”
Talk more about the show and its relationship to education.
We will soon be in our 35th year, and have now joined among the longest-running TV series in TV history. That’s an Alabama TV show we’re talking about. We’ve limped along – you don’t have a lot of money sometimes. But at this point, we have almost 100 shows on every aspect of natural diversity in Alabama.
All of those shows are with teacher guides I write to go with them, and they are correlated to support the academic requirements in this state, in science, math, and we try to cover the arts. Certainly environmental science. Geography, history. I’ve been in this business for a while, and I can tell you, we’re the only show that does it this way.
Has the show has given you a platform to do public speaking?
Yes. I welcome the chance to bring thoughtfulness and substance to this whole topic of our natural heritage and our environment and how we can improve education, because we’re in trouble.
People ask me, what’s the biggest environmental threat in Alabama? They think I’m going to say, all that litter. I have to dismiss that. Litter can be picked up.
The biggest long-term threat is loss of our rural countryside. Because when that’s gone, there goes your watershed protection, your biodiversity.
Look at Atlanta, look at Houston. I ask my audiences, if that kind of growth and change comes here, what’s this state going to be for your children and grandchildren?
Some of my political enemies, although they’re friendly enemies, they disagree with me. “All the growth we can get is what we need.” They have their reasons, and they’re not bad reasons. But thinking long-term, where’s that going to take us, people?
What should we do? Get serious about long-term planning, and connect education to the land.
Are you hopeful for the future of Alabama’s environment and its natural heritage?
Depends on what side of the bed I get up on. (laughs) There’s a lot of wonderful new environmental awareness and leadership going on in Alabama today. But I realize that the culture is becoming cognitively disconnected from the land. When you combine that with this profit-driven need for growth, it’s just gotten out of hand in so many places.
Alabama has got to quit being ashamed of ruralness. I’ve seen this in some people, who are sort of subconsciously equating our ruralness with ugliness.
I tell people, do not equate backwoods with backwards. Ruralness and backwoods is putting us ahead of other regions that have lost all of this.