East facing ridges of the proposed 
Longleaf NWR after a dusting of snow.
Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge
Jacksonville State University's 
Environmental Policy and Information Center

Protecting Fort McClellan's Longleaf Ecosystem
    by Pete Conroy, EPIC Director
    Alabama Wildlife Federation Magazine
    Spring, 1998

        When 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 Refuge.

    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 significant.

    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.

 

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 | News Releases



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Jacksonville State University 
700 Pelham Road North 
Suite 246 Martin Hall 
Jacksonville, AL  36265 
(256) 782-5681
Last Updated:  November 11, 2003