Oak Mountain State Park celebrates new 1,600 acres of Belcher property

Published 1:35 pm Monday, April 18, 2022

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By MICHELLE LOVE | Staff Writer

Several Alabama state park officials, members of state government and the Forever Wild Land Trust Board of Trustees gathered at the Belcher Tract property off of Highway 280 on Friday, April 15 to celebrate the approximately 1,600-acre land expansion of Oak Mountain State Park.

The property is one of the largest undeveloped tracts along the U.S. 280 corridor. It includes features like King’s Chair and Belcher Tract, which are popular areas frequently visited by hikers and nature enthusiasts. The Belcher Tract sits adjacent to Oak Mountain State Park, from its existing boundary to U.S. 280, near the Greystone and Chelsea communities.

The property was acquired by OMSP thanks to a land purchase facilitated by the Forever Wild Land Trust after a nomination of the Alabama Forever Wild Land Trust to receive the property from Dell Brooke, EBSCO Industries board member and daughter of Elton B. Stephens, founder of EBSCO Industries, and Dixon Brooke, Jr., EBSCO Industries board member and former president and CEO of EBSCO Industries, in 2019. The Forever Wild board unanimously voted to acquire the property in 2020.

The addition of the 1,600 acres puts OMSP at 11,584 acres total.  Alabama Park Naturalist Lauren Massey said this addition of land is a huge step for conservation and biodiversity in Alabama.

“What’s great about it on a natural resource component of it is that we now have one of the largest mountain pine forests in addition to this land, and we also have our critically endangered Boynton oak trees so we have another huge population of that which is only found in Alabama,” Massey said. “All kinds of new ecosystems, a new watershed, we’re in the Coosa River watershed now, so all new species and plants are things we can now protect, and eventually we’ll be able to share that with people and get more people to fall in love with our awesome natural resources.”

Chris Blankenship, the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said the addition of the property will be adjacent to the almost 10,000 acres of OMSP that were already established, which will lead to new trail systems and other additions nature enthusiasts will enjoy.

“We’ll be able to add hiking trails that connect to the park, mountain bike trails working with some of our partners at Bump and others, along with other opportunities with these beautiful lakes whether that’s kayaking or canoeing, so it just opens up a huge amount of possibilities and we’ll be opening up access to Oak Mountain from the 280 side which we will not have had before,” he said.

Blankenship said the project has been in the works for about four years, and he thanked the owners of EBSCO, Industries for being so helpful during the process.

“They wanted to see this area preserved in perpetuity,” he said. “They made this available for us nominating us through the Forever Wild process, and I appreciate the Forever Wild Board spending the dollars to make this acquisition and putting this project in public hands for perpetuity.”

He added this addition to the park will enhance the aesthetic and the quality of life of the city of Birmingham.

“That was one of the things that’s most exciting to me: when you look at a Google map of the Birmingham area and here around Shelby County, this is like a beautiful oasis in the middle of all the development,” he said. “So, to have this 1,650 acres that won’t be developed and that will be available to the public in an area that’s as fast growing as Shelby County, that’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

“This addition to Oak Mountain State Park is a wonderful legacy for the people of Alabama,” said Mitch Reid, Director of The Nature Conservancy in Alabama. “This mountain longleaf tract is some of the most unique habitat in the country, and we are fortunate to have it, and be able to protect it, here in the Birmingham metro area. EBSCO’s decision to put the land into conservation is a true gift, as well as an opportunity to expand one of the most popular parks in Alabama. This is truly a win-win for people and nature.”

State Parks officials are working on plans for the new property, which will almost certainly include an extension of hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails from existing areas of the park. In addition, improved access to the park from U.S. 280 is also being considered as a future project.