It didn’t happen last week. It happened in 1992.
Tuesday, Forever Wild is being presented to voters again. The program, which uses state funds to buy undeveloped land to be preserved for public uses such as hunting, hiking and birdwatching, was originally approved for a 20-year period. That period officially ended Oct. 1; the Nov. 6 amendment would give it another 20-year run.
The original Forever Wild movement drew a wide range of supporters, from gun enthusiasts to business advocates to environmental groups. The Anniston Star tracked down some of the supporters from that first Forever Wild campaign to find out what they think of their vote. A lot has changed in politics since 1992, but none of the amendment’s long-ago supporters — with one major exception — expressed any regrets.
“Forever Wild has an enduring value that will last for generations,” said Beth Stewart, director of the Cahaba River Society.
Forever Wild was largely the creation of Doug Ghee, a lawyer who practices in Anniston. Back in 1992 when Ghee was a state legislator, he co-authored an amendment to allocate money from state leases on oil and gas revenues, up to $15 million per year, and create a fund that could buy environmentally sensitive land from willing sellers and preserve it for recreational use.
It seemed like a win-win situation. Environmentalists could be assured the land would be preserved. Hunters would have more places to hunt. Nobody was forced to give up any property. And the gas leases weren’t technically a tax — something the public was allergic to.
“It was very creative for the time,” Ghee said. “That’s the reason I think it passed overwhelmingly.”
It drew wide support. Campaign finance documents from 1992 show that the pro-amendment campaign drew more than $100,000 in support — from AmSouth bank, from gun clubs, from a metal fabrication company and from environmental groups.
When the vote came, 83 percent of Alabamians said yes to the amendment.
One thing that made the 1992 amendment less intimidating to voters was its sunset clause — a measure that would end funding for the program on Oct. 1, 2012. That’s why it’s on the ballot again this week.
So far, the 2012 campaign for Forever Wild looks like the 1992 campaign on steroids. Campaign documents filed last week show that the 2012 campaign brought in more than $500,000, with big gifts from a wide range of groups. The nonprofit McWane Foundation gave $25,000 in the last month, and so did the publishing company EBSCO. Hunting clubs and environmental groups such as the Alabama Wildlife Federation also gave.
But many of the 1992 donors don’t show up on the 2012 list. What happened to those original supporters?
New focus on campus
Nobody at the University of Alabama seems to recall what happened to the student chapter of the Alabama Conservancy, which gave $50 to the 1992 campaign.
Geology professor Doug Haywick said the university has a permanent Student Sustainability Council. As for other student enviromental groups, he’s seen them come and go.
“They spring up when there’s a clear threat to something students can see, or when then there’s a strong personality that can get them moving,” Haywick said.
Students are eager to get involved when environmental issues are local, affecting wetlands or public space on campus, he said. And they’re increasingly aware that environmentally friendly changes are also money-savers for the school and student organizations.
“In the last couple of years, the issue has been recycling,” he said. “In this economy, people are interested in things that save money.”
Jeffrey Gill, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, is a member of the sustainability council and part of the recycling effort. He said he’s for Forever Wild, but hasn’t seen student movement in favor of it.
“It seems like a win-win to me,” he said. “But nobody’s out there organizing. Everyone seems to like Forever Wild, and I can’t imagine it being overturned.”
Stewart, of the Cahaba River Society, said she wasn’t sure whether her group’s board of directors had agreed to give money to the Forever Wild effort this time around. But Stewart said the group is in favor of the measure.
Stewart said that since the 1990s, the state has seen an explosion of groups like the River Society, largely because people are more aware of the natural resources in their own areas.
“The lakes, the coasts, are close to their heart,” she said.
Forever Wild played a part in that awareness, she said, and it’s one reason why she expects support for the amendment to be strong.
Stewart said that since the 1990s, enviornmental groups have become more willing to form exactly the sort of across-the-aisle partnerships that made Forever Wild work.
“We collaborate with people in development, and we’ll work with the Department of Transportation,” she said.
James Moses, director of the Alabama State Pistol and Rifle Association, said his group didn’t give to the Forever Wild campaign because it seemed to be well-funded already.
“I saw all those ads on television and I figured they were doing well,” he said.
Moses’ group, the Alabama affiliate of the NRA, supported the amendment with a donation in 1992. This time, it’s pushing the measure in its newsletter and trying to get gun owners out to vote.
Moses said he’s very happy with what Forever Wild has done.
“If hunting has a future in this country, it’s probably going to be on public land,” he said.
Impact on business
The Business Council of Alabama isn’t listed among the 1992 contributors to the amendment campaign, but press accounts from the time name the group as an advocate of Forever Wild.
The BCA, too, is endorsing the measure for another go-round.
“Tourism is something that has a large impact on business in the state,” said Nathan Lindsay, a spokesman for BCA.
Lindsay provided figures suggesting that hunting and fishing have a $2.2 billion impact on the state.
Notasulga resident Frank Dillman isn’t listed as a 1992 campaign donor, but he said he voted for the amendment. He won’t be supporting the measure in 2012.
Dillman spent Friday morning in Montgomery, filing campaign finance materials for his PAC, Not Forever Wild, which seems to be the only group in the state dedicated solely to stopping the amendment.
“The state is not being forthright with the voters,” Dillman said. He sees the measure as needless government spending in a time of tight budgets and deep social problems.
“I don’t need big government, and using hunters as an excuse to get more big government is wrong,” he said.
Dillman’s finance reports show about $2,700 in total fundraising. He said he’s spent the money on yard signs and a few billboards. He says he cares about the environment, but doesn’t want to see the government buying up private land.
“Do government trees provide any better air than trees on private land?” he said.
He said the he grew disenchanted with Forever Wild after realizing how much the wording of the amendment resembles the wording of Agenda 21, an international sustainability plan drafted in 1992. Agenda 21 has become a flashpoint for some conservative activists who see it as an attempt to infringe on property rights.
Taken for granted
Ghee laughs when he hears talk of a link between Agenda 21 and Forever Wild. He notes that amendment was drafted and debated in 1990 and 1991, a year before Agenda 21 was drafted.
The political world is much more polarized now than it was then, he said.
“It was passed by a Democratic Legislature, and while it didn’t have to be signed by the governor, a Republican governor supported it,” he said.
Ghee thinks the amendment can still pull in support across party lines in a way that other measures can’t.
His big worry, he said, is that long-time supporters will just forget what’s at stake — the renewal of one of the state’s most popular programs — and fail to vote.
“I’m always concerned when a popular program becomes something people take for granted, “ he said.
Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.