Photo: The Alabama Black Belt offers some of the best turkey and deer hunting in the nation. – Photo courtesy Chuck Sykes ADCNR.
A storied history, rich culture and fertile soil are not the only features of the Alabama Black Belt to be celebrated. The Black Belt is also an important economic driver in Alabama’s outdoor recreation industry.
In fact, outdoor recreation in the Black Belt accounts for one-third of those economic benefits for the entire state.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey visited one of the Black Belt’s famous hunting lodges to highlight what the area means to the state. Governor Ivey joined Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship, Cade Warner of Westervelt Company and Don Wood, owner of Wilkes Creek Plantation in West Greene, Alabama.
Governor Ivey and Commissioner Blankenship also visited a wood products operation in Pickens County earlier that morning before the luncheon at Wilkes Creek Plantation. There, Governor Ivey spoke on the importance of the timber industry and inland waterways in the Black Belt, as well as the economic impact of hunting and fishing.
“Another huge economic driver in this area that we simply can’t do without is hunting and fishing,” Governor Ivey said. “Here in Alabama, hunting and fishing has a $3 billion, that’s with a B, economic impact and supports more than 25,000 jobs. In the Black Belt alone, it produces more than $1.4 billion in economic impact and pumps in a whopping $28 million to the state’s education budget. Y’all, that’s big.
“We talked about turkeys a while ago, and I’m not talking about the figurative turkeys you might find in Washington, D.C. I mean our feathered friends here in Alabama. Just last Sunday, we were talking about our spring season here in Alabama. Some hunters were successful, and some wily turkeys outsmarted others. But one thing is for sure, and that is hunters brought in a lot of revenue to communities like here in Greene County.
“Alabama is a great place to hunt and fish, no doubt about it. And Commissioner Blankenship and his team at Conservation and Natural Resources play a major part in that. As your governor, I will continue to support the great outdoors God has blessed us with. I look for more success in outdoor recreation. So may God continue to bless each of you and the great state of Alabama.”
Commissioner Blankenship said Governor Ivey has been a great supporter ADCNR, and she insisted on restarting the Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt, which had not been held since 2015. Commissioner Blankenship thanked host Wood for participating in the Governor’s Hunt, which brought corporate CEOs, corporate presidents, outdoor and entertainment celebrities, media representatives and sponsors to the state to hunt turkeys and enjoy Alabama’s great Southern hospitality.
“The Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt is a great event, not only to promote hunting and fishing in Alabama, which is a multi-billion-dollar industry in our state, but it’s also a great industry recruitment tool for Alabama,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “We are blessed with great places in our state like this in Greene County. We have the mountains in northeast Alabama. We’ve got the Gulf of Mexico. We just have an unbelievably beautiful state.
“Getting people to come to Alabama to give them some good ol’ Southern hospitality and allow them to spend a couple of days getting to hunt and visit with the people in our state, has been very successful at bringing some of these companies to Alabama or having them expand their operations here. I don’t have to tell anybody in Greene County about the economic impact of hunting to the Black Belt or our state.
“We passed hunting camps and properties on our way here. Those landowners opened up their homes, lodges and properties for the Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt here in Greene County. I thank you very much for your hospitality.”
Commissioner Blankenship said the Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt raised more money for the Alabama Conservation and Natural Resources Foundation than ever before. The Foundation supports scholarships at Auburn University and the University of Alabama. It also funds Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) programs that promote hunting and fishing, like Hunters Helping the Hungry, Becoming an Outdoors-Woman, youth dove hunts, youth duck hunts and the Adult Mentored Hunting Program.
“We’ve expanded that into our ‘Go Fish, Alabama!’ program,” he said. “There’s a lot of folks who didn’t grow up fishing and want to fish. And what a great pastime that is. We’re introducing people to fishing so they can spend more time in the outdoors. Outdoor recreation is such a huge part of the Alabama economy overall, and it’s growing every day. We were talking earlier today about the Birding Trail and how the birdwatchers are used to going to the coast or to spots along the Tennessee River. However, they are discovering this part of the state as well because they have found out if you want to see a bunch of different species of birds and get to meet some of the finest people in Alabama, the Black Belt is the place to go.”
Don Wood of Wilkes Creek Plantation, whose family is the eighth generation to live in the antebellum home built by his ancestors in 1887, said origins of the plantation started in 1800 when his family received a land patent from the U.S. government, 19 years before Alabama became a state.
“We’ve been here during the tenure of every governor Alabama has ever had,” Wood said. “Until today, one of them never showed up here. Governor, we appreciate you being here. Governor, we appreciate you being a ‘high stepper.’”
Governor Ivey introduced Cade Warner of the Westervelt Company, saying, “Westervelt brings the timber industry and outdoor property leasing to the state as well as operating a top-notch hunting lodge in Pickens County.”
Warner, Westervelt’s Chief Sustainability Officer, said Westervelt is a 138-year-old private company based in Tuscaloosa with five basic units, one of which is forest resources. Westervelt manages about 600,000 acres of land throughout the Southeast.
“Westervelt owns high quality timberland, all managed sustainably,” Warner said. “Forest Resources also manages our recreational program, which manages recreation on 700,000 acres across the Southeast, including our 600,000 acres.”
Westervelt Lodge in Pickens County is on a 14,000-acre property. The company’s Forestry Resources also manages nursery and seedling operations in Greene County.
“At Westervelt, we consider ourselves stewards of the land. It’s the first line in our mission statement,” Warner said. “The long-term sustainability of our natural resources, including timber, wildlife habitat, water quality and hunting traditions are core management objectives for our business. We’ve managed our land this way for more than 100 years and plan to do so for 100 more.”
Commissioner Blankenship reminded those in attendance of the opportunities available through ADCNR, many of them in rural areas like Greene County.
“We have 40 Wildlife Management Areas and 23 state fishing lakes, which provide good opportunities to fish but also provide some subsistence in these rural areas with bass, catfish and bream,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “We have 285,000 acres of Forever Wild property that we manage around the state, 99% of which is open to the public for hunting. We have 21 State Parks.
“All that is great, but we’re not resting on our laurels at the Department of Conservation. We really see an opportunity to use outdoor recreation and all the beauty God has blessed us with to recruit talent to come to our state to take the jobs that the Governor is working so hard to produce in our state. We’ve seen such huge economic growth in our state it has led to super low unemployment. With low unemployment, we need more people to come into our state and take these new jobs.
“There are a lot of places that don’t have the quality of life we have here. We can use outdoor recreation to let people see what we have in Alabama. Hopefully, these people will stay, work and raise families.”
Commissioner Blankenship noted that Wilkes Creek Plantation is part of the Alabama Quail Trail, a coalition of lodges throughout the state that promotes the bird-hunting tradition in Alabama.
“We’re trying to grow quail hunting in different parts of the state to bring that back,” he said. “It’s been something lost over time with development. That’s one thing about Westervelt: It’s not just about growing timber. It’s about the habitat. It’s about the wildlife. We’re seeing companies like Westervelt and big landowners that are looking to do more for the wildlife and bring the quail back.
“We are working with Ducks Unlimited in west Alabama to attract ducks and duck hunters to this part of the state. And then we get to boating access. We have the Tombigbee River and beautiful waterways. It’s great to have that, but if you don’t have places to get on it, you miss that opportunity. We’re working with the Governor to build more boat ramps around the state and to really set us up as THE destination for outdoor recreation in the Southeast.”