Without action from Congress, a program that has been in place for more than fifty years to acquire and improve public lands will expire on September 30. The Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has helped preserve natural resources and cultural sites that are critical to our country.
Congress created the LWCF in 1964 to protect natural resources and provide opportunities for outdoor recreation. Like Alabama’s Forever Wild Land Trust, the LWCF uses no taxpayer dollars and instead invests proceeds from oil and gas leases. The LWCF provides grants to states and local communities to acquire land, while also acquiring federal land to complement our national parks.
In Alabama, the LWCF made grants to fifteen communities in 2017 alone for projects including a splash pad at Selma’s Riverfront Park and renovations to East Lake Park in Birmingham. From Battleship Park along Mobile Bay to Little River Canyon in North Alabama, our state has benefitted tremendously from the LWCF. Communities have added and expanded recreational facilities and provided invaluable access to our public lands.
Please join us in asking Congress to take action and renew the Land & Water Conservation Fund. If the LWCF is allowed to expire, the legacy of public lands in the United States expires with it.
The 2017 legislative session ended on Friday, May 19. There were many distractions and controversies, including prep for an impeachment trial that ended in the resignation of Governor Bentley, and a battle over redistricting that caused days of delay as the redistricting bill was read aloud in both chambers. Despite these delays, both the education and general fund budgets were passed, and the redistricting bill now goes to Governor Ivey. Other notable bills that passed this session include legislation that abolishes a judicial override in death penalty cases and a bill ensuring insurance coverage of autism therapies.
Three bills were introduced this year requiring payment of lost ad valorem (property) taxes on lands purchased through the Forever Wild Land Trust. HB 473 and a local bill, (HB 490) focusing on property in Coosa County, sought these payments from the Alabama Trust Fund. HB 502, introduced later in the session, would have required these taxes come directly from Forever Wild. Defeating these bills was our top priority this session. All state lands are exempt from ad valorem taxes, but these bills targeted a popular land protection program overwhelmingly supported by Alabama’s voters. After thousands of emails, letters and phone calls, HB 502 stalled in the House, and HB 490 was defeated in the Senate. Forever Wild remains safe.
Protecting public lands was not the only progress this session. A hearing on HB 577 drew a crowd in support of a statewide water management plan for Alabama. The Alabama Water Conservation and Securities Act would facilitate the coordination of plans, laws, regulations and decisions pertaining to water allocation. Under current Alabama state law, no state agency is tasked to assess stream flows to ensure that water uses are sustainable, and no agency is empowered to step in when water uses threaten the integrity of Alabama’s water resources. HB 577 would ensure that water resources are protected during times of drought or water shortage and clearly defines the conditions that that would trigger state action. While it was too late in the session to advance HB 577, this outcry of support keeps the conversation going about how we create a real plan to protect our limited water resources.
Other bills advancing this session were HB 288, which creates a distinctive boat decal with half of the proceeds supporting our state parks. Also passing and going to the governor’s desk for signature is HB 328, which removes the automatic approval for landfills if there is no action taken by the local planning and zoning board.
Overall, this session was a victory for the conservation community. Once again voters came out in support of public lands and waters, impacting decisions being made in Montgomery. These wins show the power that we as voters have to hold our elected officials accountable. At Conservation Alabama, we work to ensure decisions made by our local, state and national elected officials protect the people and places you love. Your voice matters and makes a difference to protect our great state.
We made it through another week on Goat Hill without a vote on HB 502. This bill proposes a constitutional amendment that would require the Forever Wild Land Trust to pay lost ad valorem (property) taxes on lands purchased through the program. HB 502 was on the special calendar last night, but a vote never happened. Instead, House members gave final approval on a $1.8 million General Fund Budget, which now goes to Governor Ivey.
Next up in the House was a controversial Historic Monuments Bill, which would prevent cities from removing historic monuments, including those commemorating the Confederacy. After a heated debate, the bill was approved 72-29. However, an amendment on the floor now sends this bill back to the Senate for approval.
With just four days left in this legislative session, it’s now a race against time to pass remaining pieces of legislation. If HB 502 is voted on in the House next week, it must then go to the Senate for approval. If passed by both the House and Senate, HB 502 would next go to voters. In 2012, Alabama’s Forever Wild Land Trust program was renewed for another 20 years by an overwhelming majority – 75% of the vote. Because HB 502 proposes a constitutional amendment, it cannot be vetoed by the governor.
Almost 9,000 messages have been sent to elected officials this session demanding protection of Forever Wild. It’s not too late for your voice to be heard. Contact your legislators today and tell them to Vote NO on HB 502.
The legislature has until May 22nd to finish the session, however the Senate and House plan to meet three or four days next week and adjourn either Thursday or Friday, bringing a close to the 2017 regular legislative session.