Alabama's national forests are among the state's most extensive natural treasures, encompassing 666,780 acres of publicly owned lands that include parts of 17 counties. The Bankhead, Conecuh, Talladega, and Tuskegee National Forests reflect the diverse geography of the state, ranging from the Cumberland Plateau physiographic section in the north to the East Gulf Coastal Plain physiographic section in the south. As Alabama increases its profile as a tourist and outdoors destination, its forest resources will surely play an important role. Alabama's four national forests are home to approximately 900 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes, including endangered and threatened species such as the gopher tortoise and the red-cockaded woodpecker. Thousands of species of insects, butterflies, and other invertebrate creatures, as well as countless plant species, thrive in these forests. They are also important outlets for public recreation, offering myriad activities including fishing, hiking, swimming, boating, camping, picnicking, and hunting. Forest rangers have reported more than 700,000 visitors a day enjoying the many attractions of Alabama's forests.
National forests are lands overseen by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), an agency of the Department of Agriculture. At the turn of the century, damage from grazing, uncontrolled logging, and burning prompted public outcries for protection of federal lands. In 1891, Congress passed the Forest Reserve Act, empowering the president to proclaim forest reserves on the nation's publicly owned lands. This step did not greatly affect lands in the east, which were largely privately owned. However, in 1911 severe clear-cutting of watersheds produced major flooding in several eastern states, and Congress passed the Weeks Act, which provided for "the purchase of forested, cutover, or denuded lands within the watersheds of navigable streams." At the time, the federal government owned thousands of acres in Alabama, having obtained them from the Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Cherokee Indian tribes through treaties and other means. Some acreage had been sold or leased, mainly for logging or mining purposes. By leasing land for commercial use, the government was able to profit from its holdings. Some of the land had been homesteaded, and many residents were willing to sell and move to more fertile ground. The USFS purchased or reclaimed these lands and gradually reestablished forest cover with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps, whose workers built roads, dams, and trails and planted trees.
The principal purpose of national forests was commercial and public use. According to the Multiple Use Act of 1960, the purpose of the USFS became "the enhancement of recreation, soil, range timber, watershed, wildlife, fishing, mining, based on the most judicious use of the land." Forest management aimed at meeting all of these mandates has produced different plans for success and created conflicts regarding what constitutes the best use of resources and land. On one end of the spectrum is productivity, and on the other is preservation.
In Alabama forests, the philosophy of productivity prevailed, and mining and commercial logging of hardwoods and longleaf pine stands was encouraged. These enterprises brought in income and paved the way for planting quick-growing loblolly pine, the
preferred species for paper mills. During the mid-twentieth century, forest fires were considered harmful, and as a result,
native species of plants that required fire for renewal and growth, and the animals that depended on them, declined. Moreover,
single-species forests brought infestations of the southern pine beetle, which has destroyed thousands of acres of trees.
In response to these declining conditions, Alabama's conservation groups, citizens, forest service employees, and representatives
of the timber industry began working on new policies. In 1998, the Alabama Division of the USFS embarked on a Forest Revision Plan with public input,
and in 2004, health and restoration initiatives were established for each of Alabama's national forests. The underlying philosophy
of the plan is maintaining the health of the forest itself, with its interdependent ecosystems, with public and commercial
use following that lead.
Bankhead National Forest
Originally set aside as an Alabama Purchase Unit in 1918 and named the Alabama National Forest, the Bankhead was renamed in 1942 in honor of William B. Bankhead, an influential U.S. representative from Alabama between 1917 and 1940. Its 198,385 acres are located in the northwestern part of the state in parts of Lawrence, Winston, and Franklin counties. The forest lies in the Cumberland Plateau physiographic section, and the topography consists of high bluffs and sloping ridges that lead to steep gorges, waterfalls, and stream bottoms. Bankhead also contains stands of large old-growth hardwoods including oak, maple, beech, and black gum. The Bee Branch area is home to a 150-foot tulip poplar that is approximately 500 years old. Mixed hardwood stands, piney woods, and abundant streams and rivers provide excellent habitat for native birds, plants, and animals.
There are five recreation areas, 80 miles of hiking trails, and 40 miles of horseback trails. Canoers and kayakers may paddle a portion of the 61-mile Sipsey Wild and Scenic River, Alabama's only river so designated. The forest is also home to the 25,000-acre Sipsey Wilderness. Established in 1975, it is Alabama's first wilderness area and the result of a 10-year effort by the Alabama Conservancy (now the Alabama Environmental Council) and other conservationists in the state. The area features undisturbed plant and animal species, sandstone cliffs, sloping canyon walls, and cascading waterfalls.
Archeologists have found hundreds of stone piles in Bankhead, believed to be the burial mounds of ancient peoples dating back at least 8,000 years. Native American relics can be found around the cultural heritage grounds of the forest. These areas include old settler roads, American Indian trails and sites, and ancient rock carvings.
Talladega National Forest
The federal government purchased the the land now encompassed by Talladega National Forest in 1936 as part of an effort to restore clearcut timberlands and farmlands no longer capable of producing crops. The reserve's 375,00 acres are divided among three ranger districts: Oakmulgee, Shoal Creek, and Talladega. The Oakmulgee District, located in west-central Alabama, includes sections of Hale, Tuscaloosa, Bibb, Perry, Chilton, and Dallas counties. Located in the East Gulf Coastal Plain physiographic section, the land is level, with moderately sloping ridges and broad floodplains. The Oakmulgee had been a natural longleaf pine community with native grasses and low shrubs. Extensive timbering and replanting with loblolly pine during the settlement period of the nineteenth century attracted the pine beetle and greatly reduced the population of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, which nests in mature longleaf pine forests with grassy undergrowth. Reforestation and controlled burning of undergrowth have restored and protected nesting sites.
The contiguous Shoal Creek and Talladega Districts are located in northeastern Alabama in portions of Cherokee, Calhoun, Cleburne, Talladega, and Clay counties. The districts straddle both the Alabama Valley and Ridge and Piedmont Upland physiographic sections, and the topography principally consists of upland hills and low mountains.
The Pinhoti National Trail System runs for 102 miles through the Talladega National Forest, and the 29-mile Talladega Scenic Mile Drive accesses Alabama's highest point, Cheaha Mountain (2,407 feet), located within Cheaha State Park in the northern Shoal Creek District.
The Shoal Creek District includes Alabama's other federally recognized wilderness areas. The 7,245-acre Cheaha Wilderness
was designated in 1983, and the 9,222-acre Dugger Mountain Wilderness, named for the 2,140-foot Dugger Mountain, was established
in 1999. Dugger lies at the northernmost edge of the Talladega Mountain Range, with its peak of 2,140 feet being the second
highest in Alabama. The land is unsuitable for logging because of its ridge lines, deep ravines, and rock outcroppings, but
these features make it an excellent primitive area. During recent years, archeologists have found prehistoric rock shelters
and artifacts indicating that the area was a habitation site during the early Archaic period.
Conecuh National Forest
Conecuh, the nation's southernmost national forest, was designated in 1936. It consists of 83,000 acres in Escambia and Covington counties along the Alabama-Florida state line, in the East Gulf Coastal Plain physiographic section. The topography is level, with gradually sloping stream terraces and broad flood plains that rise to 100 feet above sea level.
Much of the land had been deforested by 1930, and the USFS initially planned to reforest it as quickly as possible with fast-growing slash pine. As with loblolly, however, the species attracted the pine beetle. The infestation, along with commercial deforestation, drastically reduced populations of the native red-cockaded woodpecker. The forest is undergoing restoration of native longleaf pine, and the USFS is using controlled burning to retain the grasses and sedge marsh plants that are part of the forest understory. The 20-mile Conecuh Trail provides access to this unique ecosystem, which consists of moss-covered cypress trees, hardwood swamps, winding creeks, scrub oaks, and cypress ponds. Stands of hardwood bottomlands, bogs, and canebrake ("conecuh" means "land of cane" in the Muscogee language) combine with acidic soil to produce ideal conditions for pitcher plants, sundews, and other carnivorous plants. The southeastern U.S. is host to more carnivorous plants than any place in the world, and 23 species are found in the Conecuh National Forest.
Tuskegee National Forest
The smallest reserve in the nation at only 11,000-acres, Tuskegee National Forest was designated in 1959; the original tract, however, was purchased in several sections by the U.S. government in 1935 and 1938 as part of the Submarginal Land Program. The forest lies in east-central Alabama in the East Gulf Coastal Plain physiographic section and is wholly within Macon County. Although the land was not as rich and fertile as that in the Black Belt, cotton growers moved into the hills in the area after the boll weevil ruined plantations in the more fertile soils of Macon County and nearby Black Belt lands. Absentee landowners bought up the land and developed it into tenant farms that within a short time exhausted the soil. Under the Submarginal Land Program, the eroded, worn-out farmland was purchased for forestry, wildlife management, and recreational uses.
In 1959 after the land had been largely reforested, it was placed under the management of the USDA Forest Service, and that
same year the federal government officially named it the Tuskegee National Forest. As in the other national forests, the USFS
has undertaken longleaf pine restoration and protection of hardwood stands to help the forest recover from the days of loblolly
planting and logging. The historic Bartram Trail, part of which runs through Tuskegee, is a major attraction. The trail was designated to commemorate the travels of naturalist
and author William Bartram, who explored the Southeast between 1775 and 1778. It is the first trail in Alabama to be named a National Recreation Trail.
Tuskegee's Tasca Recreation Center features a replica of Booker T. Washington's log cabin home.
A Look Ahead
In addition to offering beauty, recreation, and vital ecosystems for native flora and fauna, Alabama forests protect municipal watersheds for seven cities. As urbanization spreads and the population of the state increases, more and more pressure is placed on these watersheds as well as on other forest resources. The future health of the forests depends not only on continued Forest Service management and care, but also on the willingness of Alabamians to balance progress with protection.
Marshall, Lamar. "The History and Background of the Bankhead National Forest," Wild Alabama (Winter 2000): 1-8.
Phillips, Doug. Discovering Alabama Forests. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.
Randolph, John. The Battle for Alabama's Wilderness. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005.
Alice S. Christenson
Published September 19, 2007
Last updated February 21, 2011