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2016 Legislative Session in the Books

State HouseOn Wednesday night, the Alabama State Legislature adjourned sine die, meaning the 2016 session has come to an end. The final two days were a whirlwind, with debate continuing well into the night. The focus was primarily on Gov. Bentley’s prison construction plan and a bill allocating the $1 billion the General Fund will be receiving as a result of the settlement with BP and other parties responsible for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Neither of these bills passed. The BP bill’s death has further consequences for Medicaid, which is experiencing a budget shortfall that could have been made up in part by $70 million from the BP settlement.

For conservation voters, the 2016 session brought a huge victory in the passage of SB 260, which calls for a vote on a constitutional amendment to protect state parks’ funding. If voters approve this constitutional amendment in November it will put an end to the practice of administrative transfers, which the legislature used in the past to take money earned by state parks and move it to the General Fund to be spent elsewhere. SB 260 was passed by a vote of 29 to 1 in the Senate and 87 to 8 in the House. The governor’s signature is not required on bills that call for constitutional amendments. Once both chambers passed SB 260, the constitutional amendment to protect parks was automatically on the ballot.

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Legislators voting “No” on SB 260

Perhaps the best part of this victory was that it was the result of so many Alabama voters getting involved in the legislative process and letting their elected officials know just how important parks are to our state. All told, 4,800 messages were sent since the beginning of the 2016 legislative session. That is a huge outpouring of support for state parks, and there’s no doubt the state legislature voted with your messages in mind.

While engaging voters was the best strategy to raise awareness about our state parks and advocate for a permanent funding source, the best way to stop a bad bill is to do so before it gets started. As the only full-time environmental lobbyists in the state, Conservation Alabama was able to stop SB 289, which would have prohibited the Forever Wild Land Trust from advertising its properties to potential visitors. Many of Forever Wild’s properties are in rural parts of the state, and publicizing their availability is an important way to attract visitors to enjoy public lands and spend money in neighboring communities. In partnership with The Nature Conservancy, Conservation Alabama was able to explain the economic importance of Forever Wild’s marketing efforts and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Trip Pittman (R-Montrose) did not take the bill any further.

Now that the legislative session has come to an end, Conservation Alabama is focused on passing the constitutional amendment to protect state parks in November. We’ll be asking for your help just like we did this session and we know that keeping up the momentum for parks will be a big part of our shared success. Thank you for standing up for our public lands both this session and in 2015. Now let’s get to work on a landslide victory in November!

Bill Introduced to Protect State Parks

Clay Scofield 2-17-16On Wednesday, February 17, a press conference was held by Sen. Clay Scofield (R-Arab) and Rep. Kerry Rich (R-Guntersville) to announce the introduction of a bill that calls for a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment. This amendment would specify that any funding earned by or designated for Alabama’s state parks can only be spent on parks. This means that the administrative transfers that had decimated state parks’ budgets in the past will no longer be allowed to take place. This is a great step towards protecting the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ funding, and giving parks the financial security they need to be able to stay open.

In addition to Scofield and Rich’s legislation, other bills have been introduced to add new streams of revenue for parks. Below is a list of the bills related to state parks that Conservation Alabama is supporting this session. If you’d like to receive weekly updates on the progress of these bills, sign up for our Hot List email. You can also find out more information on these and other bills on our Bill Tracker tool.

SB 260 (Scofield)/HB 249 (Rich)

These companion bills call for a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment to protect state parks’ funding from further administrative transfers. It specifies that any funding earned by parks or designated for parks cannot be used for any purpose other than parks’ support, maintenance, and upkeep.

HB 144 (Hanes) 

Taxpayers are offered the option to contribute a portion of their tax refund to various programs. This bill would add Alabama’s state parks, the Alabama Department of Mental Health, and the Alabama Medicaid Agency as potential recipients for that contribution.

HB 146 (Wilcox)

All boat owners are required to register their vessels with the state. This bill would require the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency to issue five-year ID stickers for boats, the proceeds from which would go to DCNR to be earmarked for state parks. License holders would also have the option to purchase more expensive stickers that support various programs, with half of the money ($25) going to that organization and half ($25) going to DCNR for parks.

Guest Blog: Camping at Dismals Canyon

Editor’s Note: Conservation Alabama member Jen Howard and her daughter Grace Howard-Weinberg (age 9) are avid campers. Based in Birmingham, they’ve spent time as a family in many of Alabama’s beautiful places. We appreciate them sharing one of their recent excursions with us!

[Grace]: My mom, my little sister, and I went on an adventure: an exciting camping trip at Dismals Canyon in November. We would like to tell you about some of the things we saw, learned, and experienced.

[Jen]: Dismals Canyon Conservatory is located on privately owned land in Northwest Alabama, near Phil Campbell. The U.S. Department of the Interior has designated the Conservatory as a National Natural Landmark, through a program that recognizes and encourages the conservation of sites that contain outstanding biological and geological resources.

[Grace]: What is special about Dismals Canyon is the canyon and its history, and the glow worms (or, Dismalites) that can be seen at night on the canyon walls. Dismals Canyon is the only place in the world where such high numbers of these glow worms can be seen at one time. A biologist took us on a nighttime tour of the canyon, and we saw lots of Dismalites. It was like stars on the face of the rocks. We went all the way down into the canyon with flashlights. They were all over the faces of the rocks, buried in the moss, and on the floor. I will say that we have been there before, and you can see more Dismalites in the late spring and summer than in November, but it was still super cool.

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Grace climbs at Dismals Canyon (Photo by Jen Howard)

[Jen]: The canyon is just as interesting in the daytime. It contains a 1.5 mile trail, following a stream. Day hikers can see beautiful moss-covered cliff faces, waterfalls, areas where Native Americans once lived, and other unusual natural features. A trail map, providing some background information about points of interest along the way, is available at the Country Store.

[Grace]: My favorite part was the hike we went on through the canyon. The Kitchen site was the area that Native Americans used for cooking and tribal rituals. The Phantom Falls was super cool because you hear a waterfall behind you but it’s not there. (The rock picks up an echo from an actual waterfall downstream.)  We ate lunch at the Secret Falls. It is a beautiful waterfall that you get to by stepping on rocks across the stream. Close to that is the Dance Hall. My sister and I liked to dance on it. (It was a really tall, big, flat rock that you could dance on, and the Native Americans used it for secret rituals.)

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Grace and her sister at the Dance Hall (Photo by Jen Howard)

[Jen]: Our family chose to stay at the Sleeping Water campsite, which is one of eight primitive campsites in the Conservatory. A bathhouse with restroom facilities is available for campers. Campsites do not have running water, so it is necessary to bring potable water or filter water from a nearby stream. Although the parking area is located a short hike from each campsite, the upside is that the campsites are extremely private. We took advantage of the concierge service, which involves assistance in carrying gear to and from the campsite upon arrival and departure, and assistance in setting up. That was a great feature for a mom traveling with two small children! Another helpful resource was the Country Store near the entrance to the canyon, where firewood and other supplies are available, and the people are extremely nice.

[Grace]: We got the best campsite ever! My favorite part about the campsite was that it had a waterfall and a mini cave. There was a cool little nature path from the road leading to our campsite. The path had a really cool bridge that went over a creek that my sister and I had fun playing on.

One of the reasons I always love camping trips is the s’mores. I absolutely adore s’mores. We tried to make an oven out of a box and aluminum foil but it caught on fire. Just a little experiment though.

I learned a lot and had tons of fun on this camping trip and if you decide to go to Dismals Canyon you will, too. Their website is http://www.dismalscanyon.com.

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