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Defending Alabama Champion: Group works to care for earth’s treasure

Quick, is the amount of forestland in Alabama increasing or decreasing?

If you answered that it’s decreasing, you’d be wrong. Urban sprawl aside, forestland in Alabama has increased more than 1 million acres in the last 10 years alone and now totals more than 23 million acres.

When one considers that most of these same forests were cut over and the land left bare and eroding earlier this century during the period known in forestry circles as the “cut out and get out” era, that figure represents a true environmental and economic success story, claims the Alabama TREASURE Forest Association.

The board of directors of ATFA, whose motto is “Taking the land God loaned us and making Him proud He did,” met Thursday in Demopolis to assess the state of Alabama’s forests and to spread the gospel of responsible forest management.

Members also took a side trip to the estate of the late Charles Mayton to view the Alabama Champion Tree that has been declared the oldest known laurel oak in the United States.

Executive Director James Malone stressed that you don’t have to own 10,000 acres of forestland to be a member of ATFA. In fact you don’t have to own any land at all or be able to claim ownership of even a single loblolly pine.

“We’re a non-profit conservation organization made up of landowners and stakeholders in our forest resources,” explained Malone.

That, he added, includes just about everybody. A fundamental principle of ATFA is that forests directly benefit all Alabama residents, even those who have to get in their car and drive for 30 minutes to get close to a tree.

Forests provide a habitat for wildlife. Forests clean the air, purify the water and protect valuable topsoil. They provide recreation — a place to walk, picnic, hunt, fish, hike and camp. Forests also provide timber, the material that supports Alabama’s number one manufacturing industry.

“We’re not just for the large landowner,” Malone said. “We’re for anyone who’s interested in preserving our forest resources, anyone who’d like to own a piece of the rock, so to speak.”

He pointed out that of Alabama’s 23 million acres of forestland, 95 percent is privately owned. Even more surprisingly, perhaps, 78 percent of the state’s forestland belongs to what he called small “mom and pop” landowners.

“That’s an astounding figure,” Malone said. “We believe the preservation of that way of life is critical to the sustainable multiple-use management of our forest resources.”

Some ATFA members are interested in managing their forestland to maximize timber production, Malone said. Others are interested in creating a habitat for wildlife. Still others are interested in simply maintaining the aesthetic value of our forests.

The group’s popular TREASURE Forest certification program is designed to promote responsible stewardship of forest resources by private landowners. To have their property certified as a TREASURE Forest, owners must identify and implement primary and secondary management objectives from such goals as timber production, wildlife, recreation, aesthetics and environmental education.

The local Alabama Forestry Commission office can help landowners to develop a written management plan.