David Rainer on Outdoor Alabama: R3 professionals experience Alabama's natural resources, hospitality

By David Rainer
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Posted 6/11/24

Outdoors professionals from around the country converged on Mobile and Riverview Plaza last week to brainstorm on recruitment, retention and reactivation (R3) of hunters, anglers and other outdoors …

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David Rainer on Outdoor Alabama: R3 professionals experience Alabama's natural resources, hospitality


Outdoors professionals from around the country converged on Mobile and Riverview Plaza last week to brainstorm on recruitment, retention and reactivation (R3) of hunters, anglers and other outdoors enthusiasts.

The 210 National R3 Symposium attendees from all over the U.S., as well as New Zealand and Guam, heard reports on hunting and fishing participation numbers, youth shooting sports, new R3 strategies, demographics of those who enjoy the outdoors, an increase in female participation, and shooting ranges, to name just a few.

The Symposium also received a "Welcome to Alabama" by Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), who asked for a show of hands from the people who were visiting Alabama for the first time.

"It's great to see people from around the country in Alabama, not only for the beauty and the outdoors recreational opportunities, but also to share all the great things we're doing with the Department, especially on the recruiting front to get more people to hunt, fish and enjoy the outdoors in Alabama," Blankenship said. "Hopefully, here at the Symposium, people can pick up a few things from us and we can pick up a few things from them and get more people into the outdoors.

"I'm blessed to be able to work for a governor (Kay Ivey) who is proactive and with fellow cabinet members who are doing a lot of good things around the state. In Mobile, the mayor (Sandy Stimpson) is doing a fantastic job with bringing in industry and making good changes in coastal Alabama. If you look out your hotel rooms, they're building ships right across the river at Austal Shipbuilding. They're building ships for the (U.S.) Navy – littoral combat ships and expeditionary vessels in downtown Mobile. Airbus is located in Mobile, building A321 and A220 aircraft."

Blankenship highlighted other economic milestones in Alabama. Airbus is finishing another final assembly line and will make Mobile the fourth largest airline manufacturing location in the world. Alabama is also fifth in the nation in automobile manufacturing with Mercedes-Benz, Toyota/Mazda, Hyundai and Honda facilities.
He said the Port of Mobile is the 10th largest port in the nation, and work being done now could move it up the list.

"We're in the process of deepening and widening the ship channel so we will have the deepest ship channel on the Gulf of Mexico to increase the capacity through the port," said Blankenship, who also pointed out that Mayor Stimpson is moving the Mobile Airport from west Mobile to Brookley Field in downtown Mobile.

"I am excited to be the Commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in a state where we are blessed with diversity from one end of the state to the other," he said. "Outdoor recreation has a $14 billion impact in our state with 135,000 jobs. That is really important to us. We're using outdoor recreation to recruit people, a different type of R3, to hunt, fish and shoot. We have 21 State Parks with 6 million visitors annually. We have about $200 million in State Parks improvements underway right now. In the history of Alabama, I don't know if we've ever spent $200 million on State Parks."

Blankenship also pointed out that Alabama currently has 46 wildlife management areas (WMAs) with about 800,000 acres under ADCNR management. The state has 12 shooting ranges with an additional one in the works in Shelby County. Alabama leads the nation in archery parks with 20 and two more on the way as well as 23 public fishing lakes that provide outdoor recreation and subsistence fishing in rural areas.

"We're also spending about $30 million across the state to improve boating access," he said. "One of the initiatives of the Governor and I is to improve outdoor access through boating access and land acquisition for more hunting and public recreation opportunities.

"Alabama also has the largest artificial reef area off our coast. I know some of you are planning to catch red snapper this weekend. We have the largest reef system and best red snapper fishery anywhere in the world. I was at a conference several years ago with the Fisheries Minister for the country of Japan. He and I were discussing who had the largest reef system. I speak no Japanese and he spoke very little English. I'm going to say that I won the argument."

Blankenship highlighted the Forever Wild Land Trust, which uses $15 million in funding annually to buy land for public access. To date, the program has purchased more than 200 tracts of land that total right at 300,000 acres.

"As Commissioner, I am chair of the Forever Wild Board, and I think that may be my favorite thing I get to do because we take a depleting resource – oil and gas revenues – and we're turning that into buying property that will belong to the people of Alabama forever," he said.

Blankenship spent some time discussing the Outdoor Alabama Academy and work done by the ADCNR staff to make outdoor recreation better in Alabama to attract industry and businesses. It also aims to convince college students who are getting an education in Alabama to stay in Alabama and go hunting, fishing and shooting.

"The Outdoor Alabama Academy is a new initiative that rolls many of our programs under one umbrella to talk about what we do to recruit and retain people who hunt and fish in Alabama," he said. "Our Adult Mentored Hunting Program has been very successful."

Blankenship said the Hunting 101, Fishing 101, Shooting 101 and Trapping 101 programs have been hugely successful and the classes stay full, indicating the demand for such programs. He also cited the outreach done at colleges and through minor league baseball teams in the state, spearheaded by ADCNR Marketing and Communications Director Billy Pope.

Justin Grider, the R3 Coordinator for the ADCNR's Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division, said the networking and research from the Symposium provided valuable assets for the attendees, and he said it was a great way to showcase Alabama.

"We're really glad to have the Symposium in Alabama," Grider said. "When Commissioner Blankenship asked how many people had been to Alabama before, I was surprised to see that only half the people in the room raised their hands. I've had conversations with numerous people who have said they are surprised at how beautiful the state is – they had no idea how abundant our natural resources were – and several are planning follow-up trips with their families. Hopefully we have generated interest from the tourism standpoint, and if they are not taking advantage of the natural resources on this trip, they are already planning fishing and hunting trips for the future.

"We had some folks from New Mexico and Ohio who went red snapper fishing, and we had some folks from Pennsylvania and Texas who fished for speckled trout and redfish. It's fun to share the natural resources that we here in Alabama work so hard to take care of. It gives us a lot of joy to see our hard work pay off."

Although the national trend indicated a slight decrease in the number of hunting and fishing licenses sold, Alabama did not follow that trend.

"In Alabama, we're fortunate to see an uptick in the sale of hunting licenses," Grider said. "We also received a report specific to shooting sports, and an overwhelming majority support the fact that money (Pittman-Robertson Act excise tax) from firearms and ammunition sales gets used for wildlife conservation, and a lot of folks don't know that the money is also used to provide access like shooting ranges, places to hunt or view wildlife. Almost 80% of people support using P-R dollars for building ranges. Alabama is taking that to heart and has made providing access to shooting ranges a priority.

"The staff and team we have is a tremendous group of folks. We are proud to host the Symposium and share the programs and efforts here in Alabama."

Speaking of staff, one of the most popular aspects of the Symposium is the R3 Minutes segment, where individuals and teams take three minutes to share their programs in a creative way and are judged on their presentations.

Alabama's staff swept all three places in the competition. WFF's Marianne Gauldin took first place when she dressed as a gold miner and talked about mining information from the phone calls received at the WFF offices. Sgt. Bill Freeman and Assistant R3 Coordinator Olivia Wilkes took second with a Campus Conservation Program presentation about recruiting college students to become employees or lifelong conservationists. Grider rounded out the top three with a presentation on the upcoming transfer of wealth and how buying lifetime licenses for family members is a great way to share that wealth.

"Having all these R3 people in Alabama is refreshing," said WFF Director Chuck Sykes, who is also currently serving as President of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. "These people are extremely passionate about what they do. Face it – it's the lifeblood of state agencies, keeping people involved in what we do and buying licenses. That's what this entire conference is about."

The National R3 Symposium is a production of the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports, which is headed by Executive Director Steven Leath, an avid outdoorsman and former Auburn University President.

"We are thrilled to bring the R3 Symposium to Alabama," Leath said. "It has a soft spot in my heart. I love this state and the outdoor areas and emphasis the state has on conservation. We've never had the Symposium in the Deep South, and so many participants are thrilled to find out what's happening in Alabama. I think it has been a rewarding experience for all of us.

"Justin Grider and Chuck Sykes have really stepped out on the national forefront. Alabama is clearly a leader in R3 and another reason to come to see what you folks are doing."