The summer I got my first driver’s license, I spent a lot of days fishing alone on Alabama’s Paint Rock River. I’d leave our house before dawn and drive east and north up the Paint Rock Valley, park at one of the old fords and wade-fish upstream, catching rock bass, shellcrackers, largemouths, once in a while a smallmouth, which was as exotic to me as a sailfish. Midmorning, heat rising fast, cicadas yelling in every tree, I’d go downstream to where the river was bigger, tie up a bottom rig and cast nightcrawlers or catalpa worms (we called them “tobby worms”) for channel cats, river drum, redhorse, whatever came by.
That river was pure adventure to me, clean, born of subterranean streams and highland creeks that lay unseen in the emerald jungle of hardwoods that covered the low mountains on either side of the valley. It took me awhile to work my way north to the Paint Rock’s headwaters in the Walls of Jericho, that dramatic and isolated canyon system, with its caves and ether-clear water and perfect plunge pools for swimming, the bizarrely-colored darters and sculpins flitting among the smooth rocks of the creek bed.
Not long after I began to explore the Walls, the road in was closed. Mud bogging and hillclimbing in the big 4WD pickups with the then-popular Co-Op Grip-Spur tires (yes, my friends and I were a part of that problem) had made the old trail impassable and littered with beer cans and even a busted truck or two. For the next 15 years or so, the Walls were inaccessible, and the mountain land that surrounded the canyons changed hands among paper and timber companies more than once. It was one of the natural wonders of the South, the forested headwaters of one of the most biologically rich rivers left on the planet, and very few people even knew it existed.
Today, the Walls of Jericho and over 17,000 acres around it are open to public hunting and hiking and wandering. The land was added to Alabama’s venerable old Skyline Wildlife Management Area- now over 40,000 acres- where I hunted squirrels with friends in 1976. Across the Tennessee state line, just north of the Walls, another almost 10,000 acres are open, managed by the fine people at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
How did this unique place go from locked private timberlands to some of the most beautiful, protected, publically accessible wild lands in the South? It happened because in 1992, Alabama voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 543 to the State Constitution, allowing the state to use some of the interest earned on funds from natural gas royalties produced by wells off Alabama’s Gulf Coast to acquire critical lands for wildlife habitat, recreation, watershed protection, and a host of other needs. Alabama had then, and still has, the lowest percentage of any southeastern state of publically accessible lands, but the citizens knew exactly what was at stake. From the hundreds of thousands of acres of industrial pine forest in the southern part of the state, to the urban sprawl of Huntsville in the north, the state was losing the natural beauty and wealth that had defined it since before the Civil War.
Amendment 543 led to the creation of the Forever Wild Program, authorized from 1992-2012. According to the a state website about the program, Forever Wild added over a quarter million acres of public land, including the Paint Rock headwaters and the Walls of Jericho, in the first 17 years of its existence. Alabama still lags behind in public lands, but some of its treasures are protected for the future.
An observer might be forgiven for thinking that, in this time of huge deficits at the federal level, of state budget crashes, economic binds and recessions, that Forever Wild would have a tough time surviving. One might think that taxpayers would be eager to cut such a public program, spending scarce public monies to add public lands that are not slated for development or extractive industry. One would be very wrong. The Forever Wild Program was approved for renewal by 74 percent of Alabama voters in this election cycle, and it was fueled with $300 million for its second 20-year lifespan.
What happened in deeply conservative Alabama happened all across the United States. The Trust for Public Land called it a “landslide” as voters in 21 states passed 47 of 56 conservation initiatives – $2 billion worth of funding- presented to them. That’s an 81 percent success rate for conservation initiatives approved by voters.
Americans know what is happening around them. They know that without clean water, without protected landscapes and watersheds and places for hunting and fishing and children’s fort-building and rock-chunking that no matter how many jobs you have or don’t have, how many shopping malls you can enjoy (or not), life is basically grim. Human life in the absence of nature, or conducted in the ruins of nature, is a grim struggle. It’s never been a Republican viewpoint, or a Democrat viewpoint, or an Independent viewpoint. It is, as we wrote here on the Conservationist a few weeks ago about the American Eagle Compact between ConservAmerica and the Audubon Society, not political. To steal a phrase from the Compact, “conservation doesn’t have a party.” That is what an 81 percent success rate for conservation initiatives across the U.S. tells us, and we can now tell that to our political leaders if they are so busy that they haven’t heard it already.
A few years ago, I was in Alabama for the Christmas holidays, and I went with Doug Fears of The Nature Conservancy to the Walls of Jericho. The Conservancy played a crucial role in brokering the deal to sell the lands to Forever Wild, and in putting up the money to hold the lands until the state could bring the public money to buy them. Doug is a native of the area (he grew up about 20 miles west as the crow flies) and is rightfully proud of what has been accomplished here. We walked the open field below the mouth of the canyon, in the cold, to the little Clark Cemetery where some original settlers of this strange, lonesome place lie resting for eternity. Davy Crockett was said to be a frequent visitor here, on his long rambles after black bear and adventure. Turkey Creek flowed by low and clear as ever Crockett could have seen it. I knew that it flowed south 12 miles or so to join with the Hurricane and form the upper Paint Rock, where the water is still so clean that some of the rarest of Alabama’s 180 species of freshwater mussels hold on, and where the state record rock bass (1lb. 6oz) was caught in 1995 and where my buddy and I once caught a 17-pound flathead cat on a limb line baited with a live sucker. We took the narrow trail into the canyon, the plunge pools below us, low and still and covered in most places with a carpet of brilliant yellow leaves from the immense tulip poplars that soar from the canyon bottom, seeking the sun. It was my first time there since 1978 or ’79. We made it to the great cavernous borehole that looks like the primordial source of the river but is actually just a passage through a huge wall of stone to another smaller amphitheater above. Everything visible here is the product of thousands of years of water moving, from trickle and drip to deluge and flood.
The December day was very short, the light fading fast and it was a long way back to the pavement. We walked out without talking much.