Opportunities for outdoor fun growing


More than half of Alabama residents participate in an outdoor activity such as camping, kayaking, cycling  or fishing each year.

Because they do, 135,000 jobs are created — nearly three times more than the state's auto manufacturing industry. 

Those figures from a report by the Outdoor Industry Association were shared by longtime community planner Cheryl Morgan last week at a meeting in Parrish.

The county is drawing on Morgan's considerable expertise to expand our outdoor recreation economy.

Her work in Parrish, Sipsey, Nauvoo and Oakman is the latest in a series of efforts to increase the appreciation and use of our abundant natural blessings.

This work has made headlines, but sometimes it's hard to keep track of progress that happens over a period of years and in so many different locations.

Here's a quick recap. 

In 2014, the Walker County Commission voted to partner with the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham on a parks and open space study. The stated goal of the project was to identify existing recreation facilities and identify future recreational opportunities.

The study was funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission, Walker Area Community Foundation (WACF) and United Way of Central Alabama.

Approximately one year later, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham gave $7,000 to WACF to develop a master plan for Walker County Lake.

Around this same time, a coalition of organizations formed the Walker County Health Action Partnership (HAP) to address the county's consistently poor annual health ranking.

In recent years, lake manager Charlie Skalnik and the HAP team have worked with various partners to craft a branding campaign for the lake, improve trails, offer kayak rentals and develop an archery park.

They have also worked to raise awareness of the lake as an ideal spot for bird watching. In the fall, I and several others were surprised by the size of the crowd that gathered at the lake on a Saturday afternoon to watch the release of a rehabilitated bald eagle.

Meanwhile, HAP has also been working to improve access to the county's other waterways.

They began in 2016 with the Blackwater Creek access point on Walston Bridge Road, where kayakers and canoers were parking on the side of the road and dragging their watercraft down a steep and overgrown incline to the water.

In 2017, they received $50,000 from the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham to connect 31 miles of navigable streams that stretch from the northern part of the county to the south.

That grant was part of $143,000 that flowed into the county from various sources in 2017 to further improvements at Walker County Lake and of Walker County waterways.

The Waterways project, which will wrap up early next year, is creating three access points and improving three existing ones.

The new access point on Gardner's Gin Road in Cordova is attracting so much traffic to that area that Mayor Drew Gilbert recently announced the need to crack down on speeders to keep everyone safe.

For Cordova, the best is yet to come because major improvements are planned at Disney Lake, a fishing spot already popular in spite of the fact that there is no pier for anglers who fish from the bank. Last year, the Alabama Power Foundation gave $15,000 for the construction of a multi-use dock at the site.

In addition to overseeing physical improvements, HAP has also worked to encourage people to get out on the water through events such as 2015's "Fall into Mulberry Fork" and last year's inaugural Sipsey Fork River Race.

Now Morgan has been brought in by WACF to develop strategic plans that emphasize outdoor recreation in Parrish, Nauvoo, Sipsey and Oakman.

At last week's meeting in Parrish, Morgan suggested that town leaders consider an opportunity for building an off-highway vehicle park similar to Cullman County's Stony Lonesome.

My understanding is that she emphasized mountain biking in Oakman, a campground in Nauvoo and opportunities related to the river in Sipsey.

Morgan told those gathered in Parrish that she chose a range of activities that suited each community and fostered cooperation among town leaders instead of competition.

Morgan speculated that hunting and fishing, golf courses and the beach are the state's primary outdoor recreation revenue generators but suggested that more could be captured by offering opportunities for cyclists, kayakers and other groups.

Morgan, who has had a working relationship with Cordova going back to 2003, once told me two important things about the plans she created for small towns all over the state — they can't be implemented overnight and they are to be viewed as a roadmap, not a mandate.

Each town will inevitably run into obstacles that will require patience, ingenuity and possibly a change in plans. The important thing is to keep working with the bigger picture in mind.

Walker County has plenty of problems that attract much more attention on a daily basis than the slow and steady work of increasing local recreation opportunities.

However, it's important work, and the county stands to gain much from it in the coming years.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.