It’s a valuable piece of waterfront property in Baldwin County, wedged between two creeks on the northern shore of Wolf Bay, but the J.L. Bedsole Foundation had no interest in developing the 569 acres it purchased in 2012. As a co-trustee of the foundation, T. Bestor Ward explained last week the 70-year-old nonprofit organization has two types of assets: charitable and investment.
“We bought this as a charitable asset,” he said. “It’s a very interesting piece of property — partially salt marsh, there are a couple of Indian mounds, a longleaf pine timber stand — it’s a pretty nice mix of land types. And one of the things we struggle with is, a lot of properties have been developed along the coast and birds that migrate to South America have to have staging areas when they leave the U.S. to feed. Then they catch air currents to fly across the Gulf. And sometimes when they fly back, they have just minutes or hours to get enough food to survive and continue their migration.”
More specifically, according to an application on file with the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council, “the parcel consists of 458 acres of wetlands and 111 acres of uplands. A botanical survey by Troy University in September 2010 yielded 147 plant species and several state-listed animal species have the potential to occur. As coastal forests are diminished by development, the tract becomes increasingly important to neotropical migrant birds as a stopover while on migration. Restoration of longleaf pine is possible on 55 acres of agricultural land … The threat of development is great, however, as the 111 acres of uplands would allow for a large development to occur.”
Years later while in Montgomery on unrelated business, Ward, working in conjunction with the Alabama Forest Resources Center, learned the property was a prime candidate for acquisition by Alabama’s Forever Wild Land Trust.
Originally created in 1992 by a constitutional amendment that was approved by more than 80 percent of voters statewide, Forever Wild is funded by the interest earned from offshore natural gas royalties deposited into the Alabama Trust Fund. Ten percent of the distributed interest, capped at $15 million per year, is allocated for Forever Wild. The program was reauthorized by 75 percent of voters in 2012.
Over the past 27 years, Forever Wild has acquired nearly 200,000 acres for permanent conservation statewide, including more than 67,000 acres in Mobile and Baldwin counties. After a thorough and lengthy evaluation and appraisal process, it acquired the Bedsole tract in July 2017 for slightly more than $2.9 million, or around $5,100 per acre.
Not only has the threat of development disappeared, but the property now belongs to Alabama’s citizens, and in accordance with Forever Wild’s charter, is protected by a management plan governing its allowable use and public access in perpetuity.
The Bedsole tract was one of Forever Wild’s largest local purchases in recent years and its first in the Wolf Bay watershed, but it has also placed an emphasis on property near Weeks Bay and the Perdido River in Baldwin County and Grand Bay in Mobile County.
Its largest tract in the South District by far is the more than 47,000 acres purchased from the Kimberly-Clark Corporation in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in 1999, which cost the trust $19,300,250.
“The primary focus is to set aside unique pieces of property for long-term conservation and preservation for our children and our children’s children,” explained Dr. John Valentine, the executive director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and ex-officio member of Forever Wild’s Board of Trustees. “It’s been extraordinarily effective in conserving the state of Alabama’s incredible biodiversity and, beyond that, it connects the public with nature.”
Forever Wild’s acquisitions have opened more than 220 miles of recreational trails to the public, and many of the properties are permitted for hunting, fishing, camping, horseback riding and biking. But Alabama lags behind other states, particularly in the Southeast, with publicly accessible conservation property.
Since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, additional funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) have been leveraged by Forever Wild for some acquisitions, including 2,300 acres known as the Blackwater River South Tract that is expected to close in February. There, at the confluence of the Blackwater and Perdido rivers, the tract includes four miles of river frontage, more than 1,200 acres of wetlands and a 90-acre lake.
When finalized, it will double the size of the contiguous 2,135-acre Lillian Swamp Complex, which was purchased in four different deals between 2003 and 2015 for slightly more than $2 million.
“One of the beautiful things about Blackwater and all our properties is the way it is set up, as we acquire properties, 15 percent of its appraised value is placed in a stewardship fund we use to manage it in perpetuity,” said Chris Blakenship, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and chairman of the Forever Wild Board. “A lot of programs do acquisition but have no money set aside to manage properties.”
The Forever Wild Stewardship Fund had net assets of $36 million as of Sept. 30, and had disbursed $1.2 million for management programs statewide in the fiscal year 2018 – 2019.
“We have it invested in a broad portfolio of equities and fixed income investments by the state treasurer and we can use it for reforestation, building trails, protect endangered or threatened species, managing timber and enhancing ecological diversity,” Blankenship said. “The Blackwater River tract will be included in the management plan already in place for the Lillian Swamp.”
A purchase is also pending for nearly 100 acres on the northeast boundary of D’Olive Bay in Daphne, while an appraisal has been conducted of another 80 acres in the Weeks Bay Reserve.
Funds have also been leveraged from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Forest Service, Department of the Interior, Department of Commerce and various state fines or settlements. For $50 per year, Alabama residents can also purchase a Forever Wild license plate for vehicles, where $42.50 from each sale is deposited directly into the program.
In order for property to be considered for acquisition, it has to be nominated to the board. Any person can make a nomination, but the board only works with willing sellers. A form is available to nominate properties online at alabamaforeverwild.com.
Nominations “trigger a number of steps by Forever Wild staff members,” Valentine explained, beginning with site evaluations and ending with appraisals and offers. The board only meets four times each year, and the process can often take years to complete.
Before properties are appraised or an offer is made, they are placed on a short list of nominations. Currently the board has four properties in Baldwin County on its short list, 111 acres at Briar Lake, 29 acres at D’Olive Bay, 11,424 acres known as the Magnolia South Tract and 23 acres that would be an addition to the Perdido Wildlife Management Area (WMA).
“We score the property and it’s ranked for a number of criteria including recreation and conservation opportunities. Sometimes there are complications with titles or deeds, sometimes sellers back away, but it’s a very deliberative process and heavily scrutinized from a legal perspective,” he said.
Properties can be expansive or small. Baldwin County cattle rancher Claude Lipscomb had 64 acres of mostly wetlands that was acquired by Forever Wild in 2017 for $160,000, or $2,500 per acre.
“I went to them and presented it to them because I knew they already had about 1,000 acres behind there and no road frontage or way to access it,” Lipscomb said last week. “I had 1,800 feet of road frontage but it was mostly wetlands and there was very little to build on. I told them if they bought it they would have perfect access in and out.”
The property had been in the family since 1953 but they had no plans for it, Lipscomb said.
“It took about two years to go through all the gyrations, but they eventually had it appraised and made me an offer — it was non-negotiable — but I thought it was a fair price and the best use.”
Ward also said the structure of Forever Wild is not set up to move very fast, but in the case of the Bedsole property, there was no rush to sell.
“We bought it and parked it [in conservation], and I told them I’d give them five years to see if they could get something done and if not, see if there is some other way to skin the cat,” he said.
In the end he described it as a “pretty clean cut … arm’s length” negotiation, which the Bedsole Foundation was happy to approve.
One of its most notable properties in the area is the 627-acre Splinter Hill Bog west of Perdido, which is “covered by [one] of the largest and most visually impressive white-topped pitcher plant bogs in the world,” according to the Nature Conservancy.
It was acquired in two separate tracts in 2003 and 2004 by Forever Wild for a total of $786,345, or roughly $1,254 per acre.
Aside from Weeks Bay and Live Oak Landing, Splinter Hill is one of the most accessible pieces of Forever Wild land in South Alabama, and includes a parking area and 4.3 miles of multi-use trails.
Forever Wild also purchased 420 acres contiguous to Historic Blakeley State Park in 1998 for $708,500.
“If you haven’t spent some time in the delta and are interested in nature and conservation, those are remarkable places to visit,” Valentine suggested. “Having been established for a while, there are a lot of ecological tours up there, which is a small industry now that probably could be grown as more property is acquired.”
With deer season in full effect, Blakenship said many hunters are also taking advantage of the public lands to bag their annual limit. Permits are required and are also available on Forever Wild’s website.
“I’ve seen some nice deer from Perdido WMA and up in the delta — there are over 100,000 acres between [Army] Corps of Engineers property we manage and Forever Wild and conservation tracts — and they produce beautiful deer and hogs,” he said.
In drier months or seasons, the Grand Bay Savannah is also a popular hunting area, Blankenship said.
The Forever Wild board meets four times each year, with the first meeting of each year, in February, held in Montgomery by statute. The board makes an effort to hold the three other meetings in areas across the state so they can be attended by more people in those regions. November’s meeting in Gulf Shores was the first since 2013 that did not have a quorum of the 15-member board, a circumstance Blankenship said was due to conflicting schedules and illness.
“We expect to have to have a full agenda in February,” he said.
And while the program has been targeted from time to time by lawmakers interested in reallocating the funds elsewhere in Alabama’s budget or, alternately, requiring Forever Wild to pay ad-valorem tax on its acquisitions (it is exempt, like all other state entities and agencies), Blankenship said he was not aware of any recent attempts or interest in making substantive changes to the program.
On his nine years on the board, Valentine said Forever Wild has proven to be perhaps the best example of state government at work.
“It’s an outstanding program — a necessary program — managed by the state of Alabama and staff members for Forever Wild who are remarkably good stewards for the land, and it’s something that will benefit every Alabamian for generations,” he said, suggesting the two ballot initiatives were proof of its popularity.
“I was shocked by the level of support and approval statewide, because in 2012 I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. But for a politically diverse and sometimes divided state, more than 70 percent of the vote is pretty good.”
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