Protecting Fort McClellan's
by Pete Conroy, EPIC Director
Alabama Wildlife Federation
it was first announced that the Base Realignment and Closure Commission
(BRACC) had targeted Fort McClellan for a 1999 shutdown, it seemed as
though the region would be in for a bleak future. Lost could be
17% of the region's employment dependency, 4,500 military jobs, and
1,500 civilian jobs reflecting a $32 million civilian payroll.
Also lost would be the Army's practice artillery and forest management
program which had been responsible for fire, and the prescribed burns
which have maintained the nation's best example of a rare ecosystem
described as "mountain longleaf pine."
Left behind after the closure
of Fort McClellan would be a city, complete with an infrastructure capable
of housing 30,000 people, with over 5,000 separate housing units, 6.5
million square feet of floor space, 1,000 miles of road and over 18,000
acres of land. Also left behind would be over 10,000 acres of
forest with no one to protect or manage its resources.
A Fort McClellan Local Reuse
and Redevelopment Authority (LRA) was established to guide the future
use of this military land and property. As described in the LRA
Comprehensive Reuse Plan, approximately 7,999 previously developed acres
are now being primed for a variety of reuses including residential,
retirement and industrial. Meanwhile, a special future is being
proposed for the remaining 10,000 to 12,000 acres of undeveloped, mountainous
longleaf pine. The LRA, now known as the Fort McClellan Redevelopment
Commission, had researched the concerns of the local community and learned
that the conservation of the beautiful Choccolocco mountain range was
a high priority.
Since Jacksonville State University's
Environmental Policy and Information Center (EPIC) was actively researching
conservation and preservation scenarios for the Fort McClellan mountains,
the LRA asked JSU to coordinate the development of a plan. Before
long, a partnership and Feasibility Study (plan) was established
and placed in the public eye. With additional coordination from
the Nature Conservancy, partners came together to include the US Fish
and Wildlife Service, the Alabama Game and Fish Division, and the US
Army. Then, with wildlife management assistance from the state,
these partners will establish a Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife
According to Mr. Gary Moody,
Wildlife Section Chief for the Alabama Game and Fish Division, "When
this goes through, it will be a partnership unlike any I am aware of
in the state."
"The idea is a win-win situation
and so far we've gained nothing but support," adds Ms. Wendy Allen,
Alabama Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Indeed, the proposal
has attracted encouragement from the federal and state agencies involved,
the Governor's office, universities, and organizations such as the Longleaf
Alliance, the Alabama Environmental Council, the Alabama Ornithological
Society, and the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce. The concept
has also received high level support from Washington D.C.
As stated in the Birmingham
News, US Senator Jeff Sessions is enthusiastic about the creation
of a National Wildlife Refuge at Fort McClellan. "There's not
any more longleaf pine forest," Sessions said. "Where I grew up,
that's all there used to be, and now there's none. I just think
that a lot of that is being lost in Alabama. This is a chance
to save about 10,000 acres in one fell swoop."
Studies conducted by JSU,
Auburn University and the Alabama Natural Heritage Program have indicated
that there are over 10,000 acres of the main post that contain a unique
mountain longleaf pine habitat. Steep slopes and isolated ridges
contain groupings of trees that may be over 250 years old. Research
has demonstrated the rapid loss of this type of habitat. Forest
ecologists estimate that the South once had 90 million acres of longleaf
pine. Approximately 4 million acres are all that remain and most
of that is in the coastal plain areas. Studies by the Biological
Resources Division of the US Geological Survey have indicated that 99%
of longleaf habitat has banished within the species original range.
Because it appears that Fort McClellan represents the best example of
a large, natural, mountain longleaf pine ecosystem, it is particularly
The forest of Fort McClellan
is also important because, quite simply, it is one of Alabama's largest
unfragmented tracts of forested land. Adding to this is the fact
that it serves as habitat, and therefore a migratory route, for an extraordinary
number of neotropical migratory birds. It also provides habitat
for several rare plants and the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
The establishment of a National
Wildlife Refuge at Fort McClellan does not come without challenges.
A particular concern is the presence of unexploded ordinance (UXO) on
an undetermined percent of the steep and rocky slopes. Without
record or rumor of accident, hiking and hunting have been allowed on
the area for over twenty years. Never the less, it is expected
that extra effort will be put forth to protect the public. According
to the US Army Corps of Engineers, contaminated lands "may not be released
from federal custody until the most stringent efforts have been made
to ensure appropriate protection of the public." In situations
involving biologically significant natural areas contaminated by UXO,
precedence has been set allowing for the Army to laterally transfer
such contaminated areas to another federal agency such as the USFWS.
In such a case the title and/or management of the land may be transferred
to the USFWS while the Army would maintain liability.
It is generally believed that
positive, national recognition comes to most National Wildlife Refuges
(NWR). In fact, the overall level of visitation for national wildlife
refuges continues to climb year after year. Last year there were
approximately 31.2 million visitors to the National Wildlife Refuge
system. These visits are for a variety of purposes. There
were 1.6 million NWR visits for hunting, 5.2 million visits for fishing,
0.4 million (400,000) visits for environmental education programs, and
24 million visits for the sake of wildlife observation and photography.
Tourism is the number two
industry in Alabama and the third largest retail sales industry in the
United States, with over $424.5 billion in sales. It is therefore
reasonable to assume that the people who visit national wildlife refuges
contribute to the surrounding area's economy. Relating to the
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur, Alabama both the Decatur
City Manager and the Refuge Manager agree. According to Refuge
Manager Tuck Stone, over 600,000 people visit the Wheeler refuge on
an annual basis generating millions of dollars to the local community.
The Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Alabama is another
example of a successful tourism based economy. According to Dr.
Douglas Purcell, while many visitor attractions in the Eufaula region
suffered decreases in visitor activity in 1996, the Eufaula National
Wildlife Refuge continued to enjoy an increase in visitation during
this same period to time. Specifically, there was a 26.9% increase
of visitation from 1995 to 1996.
Studies by Dr. Paul Kerlinger
have demonstrated the economic impact of bird watching or "birding ecotourism"
on communities surrounding national wildlife refuges. In his study,
Dr. Kerlinger looked at eight US Fish and Wildlife Service operated
national wildlife refuges as a part of a larger study of ecotourism.
It was determined that the actual economic impact of visitors on the
communities surrounding each of the refuges varied from just under $1
million ($0.63 million) at Quivira NWR to about $14 million at Santa
Ana NWR. It was determined that the average ecotourist was worth
between $12 and $145 to the local community's economy.
All of this is good news for
the Anniston area, especially since Fort McClellan's mountains have
proven to be a rich area for scenery, wildlife watching and neotropical
migratory birds. It should be assumed that some level of positive
economic impact is sure to follow the establishment of a NWR.
The mountain area of Fort
McClellan has provided and continues to provide excellent habitat for
a variety of game species. White-tailed deer, rabbit, squirrel,
turkey, quail, dove and other species are abundant. Lake Relly
and Lake Yahoo offer fishing opportunities on the Main Post. The
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) Game
and Fish Division is committed to an agreement with the US Fish and
Wildlife Service that would allow for the continued use of the area
for state regulated hunting and fishing.
The popularity of hiking has
increased by nearly 100% over the past decade. It is thought that
this trend will continue to increase as urban areas grow and residents
continue to look for places to escape and enjoy recreation. Due
to the proximity of Fort McClellan to urban areas like Atlanta, Chattanooga
and Birmingham, and due to the fact that Northeast Alabama already represents
an area rich with hiking trails, additional trails at the site of the
proposed national wildlife refuge would create a synergistic effect
that could potentially maximize the area's ecotourism/hiking potential.
A network of old fire-breaks are already in place throughout the proposed
longleaf refuge and because they were dug by military bulldozers, they
have inadvertently been cleared of UXO. If determined safe, miles
of these trails may be opened to the public in order to provide access
to the forest trees, wildlife, and beautiful scenery.
The reuse of military facilities
as nature preserves is not new or untested. In fact, the Department
of Defense has handed over many natural areas for public use.
Some of these areas include acreage of northern Virginia meadows, Illinois
prairie, West Virginia mountains, California beaches, and the woodlands
of Maine. Due to a 37% reduction in military personnel during
the 1990's a drastic reduction in military lands is taking place.
Over a dozen closed or closing military bases have become or are targeted
to become refuges or parks. In fact, it is predicted by the USFWS
that by the year 2000 over 100,000 acres will have been converted for
this type of use.
Thanks to the support of the
community and the hard work of many individuals and organizations, it
does appear that the most significant hurdles have been cleared and
the major elements are in place to establish Alabama's newest National
Wildlife Refuge. Although the BRACC announcement of Fort McClellan's
closure represents a dark chapter in the Anniston area's past, the establishment
of a Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge may represent the bright
future yet to come.