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Don’t forget to consider the Alabama parks amendment on May 24 ballot

Meaher State Park
Mobile is seen across the bay from Meaher State Park in Spanish Fort, Ala.,October 2021. It’s a great park to access Mobile Bay Area cities and nearby waterways and wildlands, including the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, recognized by many as “America’s Amazon.”

Voters are asked in the May 24 primary elections to weigh in on an Alabama amendment granting the Alabama State Parks authority to borrow $85 million through a bond issue.

[Update: The amendment passed with greater than 73 percent of voters voting yes.]

Birmingham Ultra Trail Society’s mission is to promote, support and grow the local trail community, and we support the local and state parks that are home to the trails that we all enjoy. As a non-profit organization, Birmingham Ultra Trail Society will not suggest how you vote. We do suggest you arm yourself with information and on May 24 make your wishes known.

If approved by voters, $80 million would be used to “improve, renovate, equip, acquire, provide, construct and maintain state parks.” It would allow $5 million for the same purposes for historical sites and public historical parks under the Alabama Historical Commission. (No money could be spent on Confederate Memorial Park in Marbury, Alabama.)

Plans are to continue improvements benefiting all of us in recent years. Improved campgrounds at Mount Cheaha and bathrooms with showers at the South Trailhead at Oak Mountain State Park are just a couple of examples. A bit farther afield, an entirely revamped Bucks Pocket State Park brought a nearly defunct and dead park back to life.

Those improvements followed a 2016 vote that overwhelmingly approved to keep state park money — what is generated by the parks themselves — from being used to solve other state money problems. The vote was 80 percent to 20 percent of 1.8 million votes cast “to prohibit reallocating state park funds for other uses.” It also allowed state parks to let in concessions and concessionaires to operate and manage within the parks. Ballotpedia breaks it down.

Alabama State Parks deputy director Matthew W. Capps said this week that parks rely on visitor fees (that $5 you pay going into to Oak Mountain, for instance) and “other partners like local communities to fund most of our operations.” (Think Shelby County and its relationship to Oak Mountain.)

I asked parks officials for information about the amendment and got the attached Q&A. Here’s a link to the Act as approved by the Alabama Legislature.

Capps also answered these additional questions I heard from BUTS members:

Do you know if there is any organized opposition to the amendment?  

At this time, we have not heard of any specific organizations that are opposed to the amendment. We want to encourage Alabamians to go out and vote on Amendment 1 “The State Parks Amendment.”  The ballot reads as follows “Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama 1901, authorizing the issuance and sale of general obligation bonds of the State of Alabama of up to $85,000,000 for the purposes of the improvements, renovation, equipping, acquisition, provision, construction, and maintenance of Alabama state parks under the jurisdiction of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, public historical sites and public historical parks under the jurisdiction of the Alabama Historical Commission. (Proposed by Act 2021- 326).  The monies generated by State Parks are reinvested into the parks, but it’s time to modernize and enhance the State Parks system, which draws tens of thousands of tourists to the state every year and serves as a playground and refuge to thousands of Alabamians. A “yes” vote will allow the Alabama State Park system to reinvest in our parks so that we can better serve our guests.

Is there a list of what the money would be spent on and an order in which the work would be done? 

There are a lot of needs throughout the park system. Several campgrounds are in need of major renovations to campsite pads, electrical services being upgraded to 50 amp service, as well as water and sewer hookups. Provisions for WIFI are also needed in many campgrounds. Many old playgrounds need to be replaced with new modern playgrounds. Camper cabins have become very popular in recent years. So, we are looking to renovate existing cabins as well as add new camper cabins to the parks. Our Lodges could all benefit from new equipping, provisions, and major maintenance renovations. However, at this time none of this is possible without the approval of the State Park Amendment.

Is there any money that would go toward getting additional land?

At this time, The Alabama State Parks team is focusing on facility improvements and upgrades. If and when additional land becomes available, we typically work through the Forever Wild Program, such as our recent acquisitions near DeSoto Falls and the addition to Oak Mountain State Park.

Would any of the money go toward the effort to bring the Appalachian Trail to Alabama, in particular in a way that would change the Pinhoti Trail? 

No. Funding will not help the concept of bringing the Appalachian Trail to Alabama. However, funding could be used to improve the trails and trailheads within Cheaha State Park.

Does this bond issue change how much is allocated in the state’s budget for Alabama State Parks? 

The Alabama State Parks is a division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and maintains 21 state parks encompassing nearly 50,000 acres of land and water in Alabama. The Division’s goal is to manage and operate the Alabama State Parks System in an economically sound and efficient manner on the most self-sustaining basis possible. Our parks rely on visitor fees and the support of other partners like local communities to fund most of our operations.

Compiled by BUTS member Bob Sims

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