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Black Belt’s Bounty Rooted in Wildife and Fisheries

With other areas of Alabama enjoying an economic boon in manufacturing and industry, one well-known area of the state has discovered its treasure lies in its fertile soil and natural resources.

The Alabama Black Belt’s treasure is found in its abundant wildlife and fisheries with the multi-species hunting and angling opportunities and the significant economic boosts those provide.

At a press conference and book-signing event held at the Renaissance Hotel in Montgomery last week, the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association (ALBBAA) revealed the results of a study on the economic impact of hunting and fishing in the Black Belt, a swath of counties that cuts across the middle of the state.

The Black Belt counties are Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Clarke, Conecuh, Crenshaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lee, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Monroe, Montgomery, Perry, Pickens, Pike, Russell, Sumter, Tuscaloosa and Wilcox.

“You may not know that hunting and fishing in the Black Belt generates $1 billion of economic impact and provides thousands of jobs throughout the 23-county area,” said Thomas Harris, ALBBAA president and founder. “There are over 11 million acres that are truly unique in this country with its abundance of wildlife, culture and heritage. These assets are on the ground and under our feet. Our mission has been to energize these assets and recruit these eco-tourism dollars to the region. This is a rural economic development program that is working.

“I’m fortunate to be surrounded by a leadership team and dedicated team of board members who are passionate about promoting and branding nationally the Alabama Black Belt Adventures as the premier destination for hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities.”

Alabama State Senator Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said the impact ALBBAA has on the area has been “tremendous.”

“Being a son of the soil, I want to thank the Black Belt Adventures for their dedication to the area known as the Black Belt,” Sen. Singleton said. “While we may not be inundated with a lot of industries with smokestacks, we are inundated with a successful industry called wildlife. As an avid hunter and fisherman myself, I enjoy the Black Belt as much as those who travel to the Black Belt to enjoy our rich culture.

“We look forward to hunters and fishermen who come into our area to visit our lodges, who come into the area to see and visit our historic civil rights sites. We welcome them to the area. We love to hear about that $1 billion industry in the Black Belt.”

ALBBAA commissioned Southeast Research to study the economic impact of outdoors activities in the Black Belt. The research company derived its economic impact report from data from a national study from the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the American Sportfishing Association. Hunting and fishing license holders who had shared their email addresses with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) were also polled by the research company.

The study revealed that spending by sportsmen and women in the Black Belt supports 24,716 jobs, resulting in salaries and wages of $364 million, state and local taxes of $62 million, a $28 million contribution to Alabama’s Education Trust Fund, and a total economic impact of more than $1 billion.

“Hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation are part of the way of life in Alabama, and especially important in the Black Belt,” said ADCNR Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “I have enjoyed participating on the Board of Alabama Black Belt Adventures to promote this portion of Alabama. These 23 counties contain some of the best hunting land anywhere in the United States. It produces big bucks and turkeys, as well as big bass and crappie in the lakes and waterways. There are some pretty special small towns and special people in the Black Belt. I hope more people will venture out into this beautiful part of Alabama and visit the small-town shops and eclectic restaurants and attractions that really show some of the best of Alabama.”

Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Director Chuck Sykes grew up in the Black Belt and has witnessed its emergence as the destination of choice for hunters and anglers.

“Some of my fondest childhood memories are of hunting with my father in Choctaw County,” Sykes said. “Those early years hunting and fishing in the Black Belt shaped me into who I am today. That love of hunting and the outdoors fueled my desire to attend Auburn University and pursue a degree in Wildlife Science. Since that time, I’ve dedicated my career to managing wildlife, either through one-on-one landowner consultations or now in my current position. Not only is hunting a way of life and a time-honored tradition, but I’d bet many of the little towns in the Black Belt would dry up and go away without hunters and fishermen.”

Statewide in Alabama, outdoor recreation supports 73,553 jobs, providing $1.1 billion in salaries and wages, $185 million in state and local taxes and $84 million for the Alabama Education Trust Fund. The total economic impact of hunting and fishing in Alabama is $3.2 billion.

Pam Swanner, ALBBAA Executive Director, debuted two new 30-second television advertisements that will reach a quarter of the nation’s households. Gray Television, which acquired Raycom Media early this year, will continue Raycom’s partnership with ALBBAA to air Black Belt tourism commercials on almost 150 affiliates.

Dr. David Bronner, Chief Executive Officer of Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA), said the television market has been a boon for the Black Belt, and he wants to continue that outreach through the RSA-controlled print media.

“We were at 12½ percent of the American population, but now we’re up to 25 percent,” Dr. Bronner said. “With Gray Television, you (ALBBAA) are in more than the Southeast. You’re actually in Alaska. You’re in Hawaii. Right about 25 percent of the American population sees you daily. What we want to work on more is our newspaper group. We have 100 daily newspapers in 22 states, from Massachusetts to Texas basically. We can put full-page ads in those pages. We’ll be glad to help with that.

“For many decades we have tried to do things to impact the Black Belt. It’s extremely difficult. We’ve funded a couple of pulp mills, but when Thomas came to me with this idea, I knew it was something really special. He brought with him Mr. Deer (Jackie Bushman) and Mr. Fish (Ray Scott) – those two guys did our first ads. But I came to thank you, because doing something for the Black Belt is so meaningful for the entire state.”

Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, R-Guntersville, said the Alabama Black Belt is special to him for a variety of reasons.

“I love the outdoors,” Lt. Gov. Ainsworth said. “I love Alabama, and I love the Black Belt. I have stories that are personal to me. I was fortunate to kill my first deer with my dad, hunting in Linden, Alabama, when I was 5 years old. I killed my first deer with a bow, hunting in Wilcox County when I was 12. I got to watch both of my sons shoot their first deer in the Black Belt. When you talk about the Black Belt, it’s very personal to me.

“Being in the hunting industry and traveling around the country, people know about the Black Belt. Just like South Dakota is known for pheasants or other places are known for great fishing. They know about the Black Belt because of what the Association has done. I want to thank Dr. Bronner for helping us get the word out. It’s a huge industry, and we need to continue to promote it. We want to do everything we can to make sure the hunting and fishing industries in the Black Belt continue to be vibrant.”

To celebrate ALBBAA’s 10th anniversary, the new coffee table book “Black Belt Bounty” was unveiled at the press conference. Numerous contributors, including James Beard award-winning Alabama chefs Chris Hastings and David Bancroft, celebrity chef Stacy Lyn Harris, wildlife artists, wildlife photographers and outdoors writers, were on hand for a book-signing event for the deluxe hardcover book that highlights and commemorates the outdoor traditions and culture of the Black Belt. Full disclosure: I had the honor to contribute three stories for the book.

Visit alabamablackbeltadventures.org/blackbeltbountybook/ to purchase “Black Belt Bounty.” It would make a perfect Christmas gift.