Public Invited to Tour New Roland Cooper Cabins on March 11

Each cabin features a fire pit, grill and attached deck. (WAW | Contributed)

Roland Cooper State Park near Camden, Ala., will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday, March 11, 2017, to celebrate four new cabins recently installed in the park’s main campground. The ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place during the Second Saturday in the Park Music Series, which features local musicians, family fun and a cabin open house. The event is free and runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The new cabins were built by Alabama’s Rustic River Park Homes and feature two bedrooms, one full bath, kitchen, living room and dining area. Each cabin also offers a gas range, central heat and air conditioning, a fire pit, grill and attached deck. One of the four cabins is Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessible.

“The new cabins are beautifully built and offer the comfort of home in the peaceful, natural setting of Roland Cooper State Park,” said Kelly Ezell, Oak Mountain State Park Superintendent and Central Alabama State Parks District Superintendent. “Alabama State Parks is proud to partner with Recreation Resource Management to offer this overnight option at Roland Cooper.”

In addition to the newly installed cabins, Roland Cooper State Park features RV and primitive camping, cabins, pavilions, fishing and boating. The park is also a stop on the Alabama Bass Trail and a weigh-in station for the state regulated alligator hunts.

Each kitchen has a gas range, microwave and coffee maker. (WAW | Contributed)

For more information about the park or to make cabin or camping reservations, call 334-682-4838 or visit www.alapark.com/roland-cooper-state-park.

The Alabama State Parks Division relies on visitor fees and the support of other partners like local communities to fund the majority of their operations. To learn more about Alabama State Parks, visitwww.alapark.com.

State Parks offer quick getaway, perfect gift options for holidays

Billy Pope enjoys an Alabama State Park mountain bike trail. (Photo | David Rainer)

The 2016 fall season has been especially fruitful for the Alabama State Parks System. Starting with the overwhelming approval of Amendment 2 on the ballot in November to encouraging visitor numbers, enthusiasm abounds at State Parks.

And to keep that momentum going, State Parks is offering a substantial discount on overnight accommodations at 11 State Parks.

The Winter Overnight Specials in most of the northern Alabama State Parks provide a 25-percent discount on all overnight accommodations from Sunday through Thursday. The special discount runs all the way throughFebruary 28.

Those traveling during the holiday season or people who just want to get away from all the hustle and bustle, can choose among Cathedral Caverns, Cheaha, Chewacla, DeSoto, Joe Wheeler, Lake Guntersville, Lake Lurleen, Lakepoint, Monte Sano, Oak Mountain and Rickwood state parks.

Obviously, accommodations vary from park to park. Campgrounds are the only available accommodations at Cathedral Caverns, Lake Lurleen and Rickwood. Cabins are available at Cheaha, Chewacla, DeSoto, Joe Wheeler, Lake Guntersville, Lakepoint, Monte Sano and Oak Mountain. Cheaha, DeSoto and Lake Guntersville also have chalets, while Joe Wheeler and Lakepoint have cottages available. The state parks with lodge accommodations are Cheaha, DeSoto, Joe Wheeler, Lake Guntersville and Lakepoint. Be aware that the lodge and restaurant at Cheaha will be closed Monday through Thursday from January 3, 2017, through March 1, 2017.

The online web reservations tool is not available for campground reservations for this promotion, so you’ll need to call the respective park office to make campground reservations. As usual, the Winter Overnight Specials discount can’t be combined with other discounts or packages.

If you’re a hunter who likes to explore Alabama’s Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), State Parks has a heck of a deal for you, too.

Hunters can rent lodge rooms at Cheaha (see note above), Lakepoint, Joe Wheeler, DeSoto and Lake Guntersville state parks for $49.95 a night. All you have to do is show your hunting license and your WMA permit to get the discounted rate.

DeSoto has an additional option with its Stay and Hunt Package, which is available through February 10, 2017, and again for turkey season from March 15 through April 30, 2017. Access to Little River WMA from DeSoto State Park is for purchasers of the package only.

The Stay and Hunt Package is available with two options. The two-person rate of $570.20 gets you three days and two nights in a log cabin or chalet with five meals included as well as three bundles of firewood. Grab a couple of extra hunting buddies and take advantage of the four-person deal for $739.79 for a log cabin or chalet for three days and two nights, six meals and three bundles of firewood.

Access to Little River WMA through DeSoto State Park is foot traffic only. Portions of the WMA are bow hunting only. Visit www.alapark.com/stay-and-hunt-package for links and detailed information about hunting on the Little River WMA.

A hunter’s special is also available at Blue Springs State Park in southeast Alabama within driving distance of one of the top WMAs in the nation for deer hunting. The Barbour County WMA has a nationwide reputation of providing quality deer hunting. Be aware that Barbour County has a special antler restriction in force in that each buck of the three-buck limit must have at least three points on one side.

Blue Springs, which is near Clio, offers up to a 70-percent discount to hunters. Cabins 1 and 2 can accommodate up to six hunters, while Cabin 3 can sleep four. A travel trailer that sleeps five is also available. Reservations can be made through the park office at (334) 397-4875 or email bluesprings.stpk@dcnr.alabama.gov for more information. The first night’s rent is due when the reservation is made.

If you like getting some exercise and experiencing the beauty of the Alabama State Parks, then consider ringing in the new year at one of four State Parks with a First Day Hike. The hikes on January 1, 2017, will take place at Cheaha, DeSoto, Gulf, Oak Mountain and Lake Guntersville. Park staff will guide the hikes as part of a nationwide program to hike state parks throughout the nation on New Year’s Day. Last New Year’s Day, more than 55,000 people hiked more than 133,000 miles during the program, which is promoted by the National Association of State Park Directors.

Speaking of hiking, it’s common knowledge that one of the main attractions for many state parks visitors is a place to enjoy nature and get some exercise to boot. The trails system has been a cornerstone of the State Parks System’s mission to offer outdoor recreational opportunities that include hiking, trail running and mountain biking.

The State Parks System also knows a lot of people are passionate about the trails system, which led to the creation of the Dirt Pass Trails Team, which will return for 2017. Those who wish to step up and contribute a little more to the trails program in Alabama State Parks can purchase a $35 annual Dirt Pass, with the proceeds being used to support the entire State Parks trails system. The Dirt Pass bracelets will be sold at the 10 participating parks, and you can go to www.alapark.com/Dirt-Pass to access the Dirt Pass online purchasing tool.

Another way to show your support for Alabama State Parks is by purchasing the new State Parks Supporter car tag. The Alabama Legislature approved the sale of the State Parks tag, starting January 2017. When your tag is up for renewal, request an Alabama State Parks car tag and 80 percent of the specialty tag fee will go directly to help fund the Alabama State Parks.

With the approval of Amendment 2, which passed with an 80-percent majority, the funding for Alabama State Parks is protected and cannot be diverted to any other form of state government. Amendment 2 makes the budgeting process for State Parks significantly easier. A stable funding platform also provides incentive for the many volunteers who assist State Parks staff to make the facilities attractive to visitors, who come from not only Alabama but all over the world.

If you’re absolutely stumped about what to get the nature lover in your family for Christmas, State Parks have the perfect, last-minute gift. An Alabama State Parks gift card is available at 20 State Parks and can open up recreational opportunities like the aforementioned hiking and trail riding to just taking time out of your busy schedule to relax and enjoy the natural beauty available in Alabama’s great outdoors.

Don’t have time to swing by one of the State Parks to get a gift card? Consider another Christmas gift option for the hunter or angler in the family. A lifetime hunting or fishing license is available for residents of Alabama, and the license remains valid even if the recipient moves out of state. If the gift of a lifetime license is for residents age 16 or older, the licenses can be purchased online at outdooralabama.com by clicking on the licenses link. The person’s driver’s license number, date of birth and demographic information must be provided to make the purchase. If the lifetime license is for someone under age 16 or who doesn’t have a driver’s license, you’ll have to go to the local probate office or apply by mail. Proof of residency is required.

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman. 

Falconry allowed in select state parks for squirrel and rabbit seasons

Jeff Fincher leads a group on a hunt through the Grampian Hills of Wilcox County, Ala., on Feb. 27, 2016. (WAW | Stewart Gwin)

Jeff Fincher leads a group on a hunt through the Grampian Hills of Wilcox County, Ala., on Feb. 27, 2016. (WAW | Stewart Gwin)

In an effort to expand recreational opportunities in Alabama’s state parks, the parks system will allow falconry in the following parks this fall: DeSoto, Joe Wheeler, Lake Guntersville, Lakepoint, Chewacla, Buck’s Pocket, Lake Lurleen, Monte Sano, Oak Mountain, Paul Grist, Wind Creek, Frank Jackson, Cheaha and Cathedral Caverns. Park entrance fees will apply.

Falconry will be available in the parks listed above only during squirrel and rabbit seasons, which run from Sept. 15, 2016, to Mar. 5, 2017. Participating falconers are required to check in with the individual park’s management to learn about recommended hunting areas and other falconry program guidance.

“Parks is happy to offer this new hunting opportunity as a pilot project for the 2016-17 seasons,” said Forrest Bailey, Natural Resource Section Chief for Alabama State Parks. “After this first season, we will review the feedback from both falconers and the parks. Based on that information we hope to offer more falconry opportunities in the coming years.”

Alabama falconers must have a valid state hunting license and falconry permit. Falconry permits are issued by the state, but also operate under federal guidelines related to migratory birds.

Falconry is one of the world’s oldest forms of hunting. It involves pursuing wild game in its natural habitat with a trained bird of prey. In Alabama, the most commonly used bird is the red-tailed hawk and squirrel is the most commonly pursued game animal. There are currently 58 permitted falconers in the state.

For more information about Alabama State Parks falconry opportunities, call Forrest Bailey 334-242-3901 or Roger Clay with the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries at 251-626-5474. Information about obtaining an Alabama falconry permit can be found at www.outdooralabama.com/resident-commercial-hunting-licenses.

Hunting licenses are available for purchase at probate offices, license commissioners, and many bait and tackle stores. Licenses are available online 24 hours a day at www.outdooralabama.com/alabama-license-information.

The Alabama State Parks Division relies on visitor fees and the support of other partners like local communities to fund the majority of their operations. To learn more about Alabama State Parks, visit www.alapark.com.

Roland Cooper, a Wilcox County economic asset, set to reopen

Roland Cooper’s campground is nestled under tall pine trees. (Photo by Kim G. Nix)

Roland Cooper’s campground is nestled under tall pine trees. (Photo by Kim G. Nix)

The folks who love the outdoors in the middle of the Alabama Black Belt have experienced a wide range of emotions in the past year concerning one of the area’s iconic destinations. Those emotions have gone from disappointment and frustration to hope and, now, celebration.

Roland Cooper State Park near Camden was a casualty of funding shortfalls during last year’s budget crisis. The park has been shuttered, but the Alabama State Parks system hoped to find a qualified company to sign a contract to operate the park.

Much to the folks in west central Alabama’s delight, Recreation Resource Management was awarded the contract to operate the park, and the Arizona company is fast at work to try to get the park, located on the banks of the scenic Miller’s Ferry Reservoir on the Alabama River, open for Labor Day.

Kelly Ezell, State Parks’ Central District Supervisor, said Recreation Resource Management (RRM) operates more than 150 campsites in 11 states and has the expertise to make Roland Cooper successful.
Of course, Ezell said the park’s reopening couldn’t have happened without the cooperation of a number of entities.

“RRM is there working right now,” said Ezell, who also is Oak Mountain State Park Superintendent. “We’ve worked with the city (Camden) and county (Wilcox). They’ve helped us to get things back in shape. We’ve had crews from other state parks in there, removing some trees and limbs. We want to get it cleaned up so it will be opened back up by Labor Day.”

Although the park has only been closed a little more than 10 months, Ezell said the lack of maintenance causes any property to suffer deterioration.

“We’re just trying to get the grounds back in shape,” she said. “Nobody has cut the grass. We tried to get down to Roland Cooper to check on things about once a month, but it’s not like having a crew on the ground to take care of the everyday upkeep. Almost a year is a long time for something to sit idle, and a lot of things happen.

“Right now, we’re making sure all the water and electric are working at the campsites. We’ve been very fortunate to have the City of Camden and Wilcox County to help us get everything in shape.”
Ezell said the state’s equipment has been moved to a secure area to make room for RRM’s equipment in the maintenance building, and that the six cabins are being cleaned and the maintenance brought up to standards.

The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division has used Roland Cooper as the weigh-in site for the annual alligator hunts in the West Central Zone. Although the park is not officially open, State Parks is continuing to allow the gators to be weighed in during the transitional period.

Ezell said Roland Cooper has quality amenities for those who enjoy the outdoors in a rural setting, especially with the quick access to the great fishing offered on Miller’s Ferry.

“The boat launch and the pier at Roland Cooper are basically brand-new,” she said. “There’s a brand-new bath house there. We’ve got a lot to work with and build on at Roland Cooper.”

Ezell said in addition to the City of Camden and Wilcox County, the Wilcox Area Chamber of Commerce has been a constant advocate for the re-opening of the park.

“I think it was such a shock to the area when it closed,” she said. “The park was a very important asset to that area. I think everybody is very invested in getting it open and functioning.”

Hunter Hines, President of the Wilcox Area Chamber of Commerce, agrees with Ezell’s assessment.

“This is about as good news as we could have for our area,” Hines said. “The park is second to none in terms of economic impact for our area. We can’t host a fishing tournament with over 50 boats without the park. It’s hard to put a dollar amount on the economic impact we’ve lost in the last 10 months.”
Hines said areas with large cities aren’t impacted as much by park closures as a rural area like Wilcox County.

“Think about the campers and cabins, not to mention the fishermen, who came to this area and spent their money buying gas and groceries in our little, small community,” he said. “That kind of impact is huge for us and is detrimental when it’s not there.

“Now we’ll be able to get back to marketing little ol’ Camden to the big bass tournaments, fishermen and people who love the outdoors.”

Alabama Bass Trail Program Director Kay Donaldson said the park has been used during its closure for some fishing tournaments. “The willingness of the state park to give the city of Camden the opportunity to continue hosting fishing tournaments while the park was closed was outstanding.” She said. “It was vital to the community to keep those dollars flowing to the gas stations and stores from tournament anglers.”

Hines said there will be a grand re-opening ceremony at Roland Cooper from 3-7 p.m. September 11 with a “Music in the Park” theme. Visitors are urged to bring lawn chairs to enjoy the music and meet the new park managers.

James “Big Daddy” Lawler has been promoting the outdoors in west central Alabama for more years than he would readily admit. He hosts a weekly radio show called “Gettin’ Outdoors Radio with Big Daddy Lawler” that airs from 7-9 a.m. on Saturdays.

“Opening the campgrounds and cabins back up at Roland Cooper is huge,” Lawler said. “You just don’t have much lodging in what I call the rural South, which fits our area to a tee. Because of the uncertainty of being able to use the boat launch at the park, we lost the stop on the Alabama Bass Trail, which was a huge economic loss for our area. Opening the park back up will give us an opportunity to attract those big bass tournaments again with the use of those facilities.”

Lawler, who recently received the Alabama Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Communicator of the Year award, said the Camden area can’t worry about what was lost during the park’s closure, only what the re-opening will mean.

“We can’t look back,” he said. “We’ve got to look ahead. This company (RRM) is very experienced at running venues like this, and I think they’re going to be an asset to the area.”

Lawler said as the nation becomes more urban, there is a renewed appreciation for rural areas that allow visitors to reconnect with nature.

“Being away from everybody is an advantage for us,” he said. “Everybody in the big town wants to come to the rural areas. I’ve been saying this for 35 years; What we have to offer in Wilcox, Marengo, Monroe and Dallas counties is the most diversified natural resources in the nation. And when I say natural resources, I’m not just talking about the hunting and fishing. I’m talking about the birding, native wildflowers and the red hills salamander areas. There is so much we have available.

“I tell everybody, nobody is passing through Wilcox County. We’re not close to the interstate or a big highway. People have got to be coming here for a reason. And Roland Cooper State Park is huge reason to come here.”

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman. 

Alabama State Parks accepting bids for operation of Camden’s Roland Cooper

The Alabama State Parks Division is currently accepting bids for the operation, by concession contract, of all or a portion of park operations at Roland Cooper State Park in Camden, Ala. Interested vendors are encouraged to submit bids by 5 p.m. on Thursday, June 23, 2016.

The bids will be publicly opened the following day at 2 p.m. Vendors interested in submitting a bid for all or a portion of the park’s operations must contact Toni Hart at toni.hart@dcnr.alabama.gov or call (334) 242-3334 to receive a bid packet.

Roland Cooper State Park features camping, cabins, pavilions, fishing and boating. The park is also a stop on the Alabama Bass Trail and a weigh-in station for the state regulated alligator hunts. Additionally, Roland Cooper is home to the nine-hole Deer Haven Golf Club. For more information about the park, visit www.alapark.com/roland-cooper-state-park.

The Alabama State Parks Division relies on visitor fees and the support of other partners like local communities to fund the majority of their operations. To learn more, visit www.alapark.com.

Marengo County Commission hears from Chickasaw Park caretaker

Chickasaw Park Caretaker Charles Osburn addresses the Marengo County Commission on Wednesday, March 9. (Photo by Jan McDonald)

Chickasaw Park caretaker Charles Osburn addresses the Marengo County Commission on Tuesday, March 8. (Photo by Jan McDonald)

Chickasaw Park caretaker Charles Osburn spoke to the Marengo County Commission Tuesday urging members to find a way to reopen the park.

“A lot of people use that park,” Osburn said. “It has been a gathering for family reunions, parties and picnics, and many people walk the site, in addition to use by both RV and tent campers,” he continued.

The park was closed during state budget cuts. While the Commission members verbally supported reopening Chickasaw, Freddie Armstead said the one-acre site belongs to the state Board of Education. “I would hope the school board would give the park to the county for $1,” he said. All efforts to contact the person in charge have failed, he added.

If the county was ceded the land, it would not include the caretaker’s home, his salary or the hunting acreage. The county would be responsible for upkeep of the park.

Probate Judge Laurie Hall and Sharon Barkley, revenue commissioner, both expressed problems and concerns with the Internet connections to their departments.

The upload side of the Internet is weak, said Hall, causing significant problems. Barkley added that her office has had to turn away customers because of the slow system. Fortunately, they said, up to 25 percent of the county residents are processing fees out of the office.

Commission chairman Dan England directed Michael Thompson to check with the current carrier for possible solutions to the problems.

In other action, the Commission:

  • Approved the Grand Jury report
  • Renewed the three-year contract for county engineer Ken Atkins.
  • Approved the use of the EDA building for the Summer Feeding Program.
  • Approved the resolution to initiate paving of a 10.8-mile stretch of County Road 44.
  • Approved the resolution for the County Hazard Mitigation Grant Resolution, which now must be approved by the communities in the county. The approval opens the way for a $25,000 grant from FEMA.
  • By a vote of 3-1, approved the request from Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital to contribute $27,500 for an outside independent evaluation.

EDA Director Brenda Tuck said the ADECA Grant has been closed out, allowing the county to apply for another grant. The completed grant helped provide 30 jobs in the business incubator and is being used as an example throughout the state and nation.

Alabama State Parks celebrates 75 years

Over the past 75 years, the Alabama State Parks system has experienced a wide range of challenges and successes. Our parks have benefited from unique public programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and public-approved bond initiatives to provide new customer conveniences and recreational opportunities.

pic - state parksIn the last 20 years, the Alabama State Parks system has hosted a consistent visitation rate of 4 to 5 million customer occurrences each year, demonstrating that people love their parks. This same park system has consistently been recognized as being one of the most efficient in the nation, with 80 to 90 percent of its annual funding coming from customer fees, not taxes.

These achievements did not happen by accident. They are the result of more than 75 years of dedicated effort on the part of our elected officials, park employees, local partners and the patronage of our park supporters.

As we look to the mission of serving the public for the next 75 years, we will reflect on the hard work and dedication of those who preceded us, and take inspiration in the vision and foresight that provides us with what we have today.

-By Greg Lein, Director, Alabama State Parks