Ed Poolos of Jasper, the deputy commissioner for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said Tuesday a number of improvements are in store for Walker County Lake. He …
Ed Poolos of Jasper, the deputy commissioner for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said Tuesday a number of improvements are in store for Walker County Lake.
He also pointed to the passage of the new baiting bill - and the fact that those used to exemptions for age and personal property hunting will now have to get a license anyway if they want to bait.
Poolos spoke on a wide range of Conservation programs and projects to the Rotary Club of Jasper, days ahead of Friday's free admission in state parks. That includes all gate and day use fees in state parks (alapark.com) to mark Alabama's bicentennial. Free parking and a 20 percent discount on overnight lodging will also be offered.
Poolos noted Oak Mountain State Park will have some attractions for children, including a water park, on Friday.
"There are great things going on at Walker County Lake," he said, noting it is a state fishing lake managed by the Game and Fish Division of Conservation. "That is a jewel for this city.
"We are in the process - we are going to get a walking trail done out there that is going to completely circle the lake," he said. "We're going to put in new fishing piers up there. We're looking at mountain biking. We're looking at a lot of things."
Poolos noted Jasper had annexed the area into the city, which he said he appreciated, urging people to go out to the lake. He said the department can do more with partnerships throughout the state.
"There is no better partners that we have found than the city of Jasper, the Walker Area Community Fondation and Jenny Short," Poolos said, recognizing Short in the audience, who in turn applauded her.
Poolos said after he was appointed to his position in October 2017, he learned through surveys that people do not know Conservation handles. He noted four divisions: Marine Resources, State Lands, Alabama State Parks, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.
Marine resources is offshore fishing and other activities in salt water, noting the red snapper season. "We now control that through the state. It is not a federally mandated fishery. Now the state gets to control it," he said, noting the fishing season has now been expanded from three days to 67 days.
"It looks like we will extend it through Labor Day," he said.
He said the state had the world's best artificial reef program, with 15,000 artificial reefs off the coastline, compared with the Japan's program.
The state land division manages all the state-owned property, from Section 16 lands that generates revenue for education to the oil and gas leases off the coast. Its biggest program is Forever Wild, started in 1992, which allows the first $15 million off of oil and gas revenue to be used to purchase historical properties like the Walls of Jericho near Scottsboro, which one could not replace if it was developed.
Poolos said the public sometimes has misconceptions about the program.
"This is not a condemnation program. The only time we buy land is when we have a willing seller," he said. "We can only pay appraised value. This is not a brother-in-law program where all of a sudden we are paying exorbitant amounts to get this property."
Nineteen Alabama State Parks all have campgrounds, and four golf courses and 343 hotel rooms are also included. About 700 employees are in this division, he said.
"About a $1 billion economic impact comes from the Alabama State Parks," he said, noting a number of renovations are in the works. Poolos pointed to the new 350-room, Gulf State Park Lodge which opened in November, managed by Hilton and offering 4,000 square feet of event space and a 1,200-square-foot ballroom.
"This was 100 percent paid for through oil spill funds," Poolos said, leaving no debt. Money now generated on the property helps to rehabilitate other state parks in Alabama.
"We've got a project right now that is going to connect our Gulf State Park out to Fort Morgan," he said. "We're going to have a bike and walking trail that is going to connect you from the State Park Lodge all the way to Fort Morgan, over 13 miles. That will be paid for with oil spill money. We're looking forward to getting that started in the fall."
Most people point to Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries as Conservation's role in the state, he said.
"They remember us as the old Game and Fish Division," he said. "They know we have game wardens," which still exist.
A biodiversity center to raise and repopulate endangered species exists in this division, Poolos said. A total of 22 state lakes, much like Walker County Lake, and 147 boat ramps exist under this division.
He noted the approach of the start of the hunting and fishing season, noting hunting, fishing and wildlife have together a $3 billion economic impact in Alabama each year.
If you took every citizens of Prattville and Tuscaloosa, and combine those, all of them could work in hunting and fishing in the state, with jobs still left over, Poolos said.
The department's website, outdoorsalabama.com, notes that licenses for the 2019-2020 season will go on sale on Aug. 26, while licenses sold before then will expire on Aug. 31.
Poolos added that a fifth section of sorts has been created at Conservation, thanks to the oil spill restoration projects, involving billions of dollars over the next few years that will come through the department.
"Just this year, through the Legislature, we got $137 million for about 48 projects we are looking at funding this year through that," he said.
Poolos noted the department gets no state tax revenue to operate with 1,300 employees, using user fees. The Marine Resources and Wildlife and Fresh Water Fisheries divisions are 100 percent funded by license sales, which also gives them some federal funding. State parks fund themselves through guest fees. The Lands Division operates off of revenue from the land management, with excess turned over to the General Fund.
He noted the passage of the baiting bill in the Legislature this year, which allows hunting over bait, such as corn, for deer and feral swine, starting this year. "We were the only state in the Southeast that did not allow that," he said, noting there are divisions for and against the practice on the issue. He said it is not a mandate and those opposed to baiting do not have to use bait.
"We've allowed feeding for many, many years in the state. The only thing you couldn't do was hunt over that feed," Poolos said. "So the biological reason for not baiting is gone. We've been congregating deer for years and years."
Poolos also noted a baiting privilege license will be required, and exemptions will not be allowed. Hunters used to exemptions, such as hunting on the own property, or being over 65 or under 16, have not needed a hunting license for regular hunting, but will need a $15 annual license for baiting, Poolos said, noting the department is emphasizing it.
An additional benefit is that the new licenses will also help the department to count those exempted to get a better idea of how many hunters actually are in the state, he said.