Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge

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Parts of New Wildlife Refuge Could Open to Public Soon
    By Sara Clemence, Anniston Star Staff Writer
    01-09-2004

   Hunters and hikers could be welcome on about one-third of the new Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge as soon as this spring.
    The portion that a proposed plan released last week says could open in mid-May consists of the eastern and southern slopes of Choccolocco Mountain – essentially the eastern and southern edges of the L-shaped refuge.
    About 6,000 additional acres of the refuge land at the former Fort McClellan will remain closed until it is made safe for public use. The land was used for military training and contains munitions and environmental contamination.
Steve Miller places a sign on refuge fence.  Photo: Special to the Star    Access to the refuge will initially be from the east, along Bain’s Gap Road. But most of the road, which runs through the refuge and once allowed traffic to flow across the military base, will remain closed for now, said Steve Miller, refuge manager. The Army is cleaning up unexploded ordnance (UXO) near the road, and portions need to be closed at times.
   The 9,000-acre refuge was established in May 2003 to preserve some of the finest old-growth stands of mountain longleaf left in the United States.
    The use plan, which will guide how the refuge is managed, remains open for public comment until Jan. 27. It is available on the Web and from the refuge manager.
    Before the refuge opens, the plan must be approved and road maintenance must be done, Miller said.
    The refuge has $500,000 in funding from the Army and will get maintenance help from Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alabama.
    All of the land will be open to foot traffic, but initially there will not be any developed trails. Vehicles and bicycles must stay on the roads.
    A main overlook, “which everybody seems to want to go to,” will be open, Miller said.
    Although some people have expressed a desire for fishing and horseback riding, neither will be allowed at the refuge. The property has only small or occasional streams, unsuitable for fishing, Miller said.
    Because much of the land is steeply sloped, making erosion a concern, and because of the costs of maintenance and infrastructure, horses are banned for now, Miller said.
    That doesn’t sit well with some local horse people, including Ranburne resident Mac Smith, who pushed for access to the refuge.
    “We feel like they pretty much closed the door on us,” said Smith, 67, who owns 13 horses and is on the board of the Alabama Horse Council.
    He believes allowing riders in the refuge would bring tourists to the area.
    “There’s more trail riders than people realize,” he said. “Over in the national forest, they have riders from Kentucky, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi ... When they come, they buy gas, they come spend the night.”
    There would be enough willing volunteers to overcome the maintenance obstacles, Smith said.
    Hunting will be limited to certain areas and seasons, and will be managed in conjunction with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. At first, only hunting for white tail deer, turkey and squirrels will be allowed.
    Miller said it is not yet known when the rest of the refuge could open to the public. The Army is responsible for making sure the land is clear of UXO and is negotiating cleanup details with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he said.
    Although he had not yet seen the plan, Anniston Mayor Chip Howell called it “exciting news.” The refuge will be part of a broader eco-tourism plan county leaders are working on, and it could be vital to the area’s growth as that movement gains momentum, he said.
    “I look forward to additional activity in that part of Anniston,” he said.
    He added that he hoped the plan includes the opening of Bain’s Gap Road.
    “I’ve had several requests from people who live in the White Plains area and Choccolocco to get to north Anniston from that direction.”
    Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge plans are available online at http://southeast.fws.gov/mountainlongleaf,by calling 256-848-7085, or by emailing mountainlongleaf@fws.gov.


A Living Library
McClellan Welcomes New National Wildlife Refuge
    by Sara Clemence, Anniston Star Staff Writer
    Tuesday, July 1, 2003

        It took hundreds of years to grow, and several years to protect, but now the mountain longleaf forest at McClellan will be preserved for generations.
        The 9,000-acre Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge was formally dedicated Monday morning. A 200-strong crowd, including legislators, mayors, environmental activists, Army officers, and at least one barred owl, was there to celebrate the occasion.
        The refuge ensures that some of the last remaining stands of old-growth mountain longleaf pine - including some 250-year-old trees - will be able to thrive. It includes Choccolocco Mountain, the third-highest ridge in the state.
        The wildlife refuge is a living library that offers valuable research opportunities to scientists. It has the potential to draw thousands of hunters, hikers and wildlife watchers who will contribute to the local economy.
        And it is a counterweight to Calhoun County’s environmental problems, several officials said Monday.
        "Certainly we have our environmental concerns and our environmental issues, but we’ll put them behind us and this will still be here," said Anniston Mayor Chip Howell.
        The refuge, which has officially existed since June 1, is the 542nd in the United States. It was created during the centennial year of the National Wildlife Refuge system, established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt.
        Although the Army, community, conservationists and elected officials have long supported the refuge idea, the designation is the result of years of negotiations and planning, and a recent legislative move by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
        The land essentially comprises the eastern half of McClellan, a military base that closed in 1999. The Army transferred 7,759 acres, and the Joint Powers Authority, which is managing the fort’s redevelopment, 1,257.
        Experts say that the longleaf pine, with its 12-inch-long needles and seven-inch-long cones, once occupied millions of acres throughout the Southeast. Most of those forests, which need fire to flourish, are gone.
        For decades, the Army protected and inadvertently aided the mountain longleaf pines at McClellan by lobbing artillery into hillsides, causing frequent fires. But it didn’t know what an ecological rarity it had until the early 1990s, when the Department of Defense commissioned a national conservation group to study McClellan.
        The organization discovered the longleaf trove and "put it on the map from a conservation standpoint," Jeff Danter, director of the Nature Conservancy of Alabama.
        A few years later, when the base was slated for closure, locals such as environmentalist Pete Conroy pressed for the land to become a refuge under the Department of the Interior.
        Among the obstacles was the fact that the Interior Department was reluctant to create a new preserve. Earlier this year, Sessions and his staffers muscled the refuge through, adding an amendment to the 2003 Defense Authorzation Bill that mandating its creation.
        "It’s not the policy of the Interior Department to add new refuges, but to improve old ones," Sessions said in an interview Monday. "So we passed a law to get it to happen."
        The Army is providing $250,000 a year for the next two years to fund the refuge. Eventually, the refuge’s annual budget is expected to be about $900,000, and should go from two employees to about 10.
        As a wildlife refuge, some areas will be closed to the public, both to protect wildlife from people and to protect people from unexploded munitions that might linger. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will manage the land, setting carefully timed fires to mimic the blazes once sparked by lightning, and later by Army training.
        "There’s a lot more to managing this than taking a match and putting it to the ground," said Bill Garland, resident biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
        Over the coming months, Fish and Wildlife officials will decide with the Army how much environmental cleanup is necessary at the refuge. About 60 percent of the refuge is thought to be clean of old munitions.
        The Fish and Wildlife Service will also develop a management plan for the land. Recreational opportunities may include fishing, hunting and wildlife photography, officials said, and parts of the refuge should be open to the public within a year.
        The refuge will serve as valuable resource for researchers, Garland said. On other lands, such as National Forests in Alabama, people are trying to restore the native longleaf pine forests that exist here.
        The ecosystem includes not just the pine trees, but the other plants and animals that thrive within the forest, including rare orchids and bats.
        The refuge is about "big things" such as ridges and pines and conservation, said Pete Conroy at the ceremony.
       "It’s also a celebration of little things, like song birds," he said. "Like the indigo bunting we have heard sing."
        To cap the ceremony, Sessions donned protective gloves and took into his hands a barred owl whose injuries had been nursed at the Alabama Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. The bird gazed out at the crowd with huge, black eyes. On the count of three, it was tossed gently into the air. It hesitated, fluttered its wings, and flapped down a slope to take refuge in a tree.
        Many people love the sound of wind in the pines, said Robert Bendick, director of the Southeast division of The Nature Conservancy. On Monday, he said, a keen ear could hear "the wind whispering in these old stands of longleaf, saying, ‘In this difficult world, saving this land was a good and right thing to do."


Senator Sessions Expresses Confidence that Congress will Approve National Wildlife Refuge at Fort McClellan
    October 17th, 2002

Washington - Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said today he believes that Congress will approve legislation before adjourning for the year that would authorize the establishment of the Mountain Longleaf Pine National Wildlife Refuge in Anniston.
    Sessions included an amendment in the 2003 Defense Authorization Bill to establish the refuge at the former Fort McClellan military reservation.  The bill is in final negotiations among senior members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees.
    "I have great confidence that my request to create the refuge will be included in the Department of Defense conference report," Sessions said.
    The legislation would transfer 7,600 acres from the former Fort McClellan to the Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service to establish the refuge.  An additional 1,300 acres, which were previously transferred from the Army to the Joint Powers Authority, may also be added to the total acreage of the refuge.
    "Creating this refuge has been one of my highest priorities, and I am proud to see the four plus years of discussions with the Interior Department, the Army, the Joint Powers Authority, state environmentalists and local officials about to come to fruition," Sessions said.
    The refuge will protect one of the oldest surviving stands of Alabama's state tree - the mountain longleaf pine.  The refuge will be maintained to preserve and enhance natural resources, protect animal and plant populations and provide educational and recreational opportunities for the public.
    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will work in coordination with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to provide recreational activities, including hunting and wildlife observation.
    The legislation would direct the Fish and Wildlife Service to establish the refuge within 180 days of passage of the Defense Authorization Bill. The legislation is expected to pass before the end of the year.


Sessions Holds U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service To Its Commitment To Create A National Wildlife Refuge At Fort McClellan
    For Immediate Release
    July 25, 2002

WASHINGTON – Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said today that he has stopped a move by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to abandon its commitment to establish a national wildlife refuge at the old Fort McClellan in Anniston.
        Sessions, who has been working for years to establish the proposed Mountain Longleaf Wildlife Refuge at Fort McClellan, said he recently learned that the Wildlife Service had planned to reassign its representative at the Fort and let lapse a memorandum of agreement in which the U.S. Army would transfer the land to the Service.
       Sessions phoned Interior Secretary Gale Norton’s chief of staff, Brian Waldman, Tuesday to express concerns about the rumored abandonment of the refuge. Fish and Wildlife Deputy Director Marshall Jones later called Sessions to say that the Service would renew the memorandum of understanding with the Army and leave its representative, Bill Garland, at the fort.
        “I was disappointed to learn that the Fish and Wildlife Service would try to back out on its commitment to establish a wildlife refuge at the old
Fort McClellan,” Sessions said. “I don’t consider this a new refuge. The Fish and Wildlife Service announced its intention to create the Mountain
Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge two years ago. This was a commitment to the Calhoun County community, and I intend to hold them to their
promise.
        “Creating this refuge is one of my highest priorities, and I look forward to working with all of the parties – the citizens of Calhoun County, the
Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army and local and state officials – to preserve this land for future generations.”
        Officials are contemplating a refuge that would cover about 10,000 acres of undeveloped pine and mixed pine-hardwood forests on the closed military base in Calhoun County. The Service would acquire the proposed lands through an interagency transfer from the U.S. Army.

Related Links

Link to Long Leaf Alliance
Long Leaf Alliance
Link to Nature Conservancey
The Nature Conservancy
Link to National Wildlife Refuge
Mountain Longleaf NWR

Mountain Longleaf Main Page | Photo Scrapbook of Refuge Dedication | Protecting Fort McClellan's Longleaf EcoSystem


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Last Updated:  November 11, 2003