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‘Sweet Trails’ effort looks to preserve, connect landmarks

State Sen. Andrew Jones was inspired by a portion of old railroad.

Jones, R-Centre, uses the old Tennessee-Alabama-Georgia railway and how much of it has been destroyed over the years as an example when discussing his reasoning for authoring Senate Bill 298, which was passed unanimously by both chambers of the Alabama Legislature earlier this year.

“There are these historic tunnels that were built by hand, and I remember seeing on Facebook that a property owner had all these folks coming onto his property to check out the tunnels … He was worried about liability, he didn’t like having trespassers, and so he got a bulldozer and filled it in,” Jones said. “It was, to me, such a waste, because that’s the kind of historical, those historical things need to be preserved.”

In addition to furthering Jones’ goal of preserving parts of Alabama’s outdoor history, the legislation created the Sweet Trails Alabama Project Fund and the Sweet Trails Alabama Acquisition Fund, with a primary goal of creating a network of outdoor trails connecting the state. Part of the legislation would provide liability coverage and funding to erect barriers around privately owned property that are next to the trails.

The legislation allows property owners to donate it in exchange for grants equal to 25% of the fair market value of the donated property, up to $250,000.

“One of the benefits of trails is when …you bring more people to an area to see something like that, the more eyes are on it, it helps bring attention to it and it helps to preserve it. So, we have tons of things like that around the state,” Jones added.  

Another motivation, he said, was to help increase outdoor tourism in the state and educate people about Alabama’s history while exposing them to the Alabama of today. 

“Everybody has a view of Alabama, the way we were 60 or 70 years ago, and we want folks to see modern Alabama, that we’re in the top five in automaking, aerospace, shipbuilding, and on top of that, our natural beauty,” Jones said. “The whole concept of this is for folks to come here and they hop on this trail system – maybe they’re just on their way to the beach. A lot of people, you ask them, ‘Have you ever been to Alabama?’ And they’ll say, ‘I’ve driven through there.’ So we want them to stop here.”

The project will work with the Department of Archives to create historical markers and other opportunities for those using the trails to learn about Alabama, Jones said. 

The bill had more than two dozen co-sponsors in the Senate, including Sen. Lance Bell, R-Riverside, who said he saw it as an economic development and tourism initiative.

“It also promotes conservation through public awareness and education,” Bell said recently. “You’re getting people outdoors, seeing the beauty in our state, what nature has to offer. You can’t beat that.”

So far $900,000 has been allocated for the trail program, Jones said, but he also noted that it would be almost impossible to estimate how much the total project will cost from start to finish. He said this was due to the different options for funding trail development – often, the federal government will extend grants for trail development, Jones said, but it can depend on the presidential administration.

The program will utilize both existing trails, in addition to ones that will be built in the future. Part of why it was important to visit local communities early on, Jones said, was to learn about what trails were already out there.

The first step to creating such a trail network will be to complete the master plan of the overall project, which Jones says work is already underway for. Sweet Trails Alabama, in conjunction with the Singing River Trail and Jacksonville State University, visited 11 communities over five days earlier this month to learn more about what locals wanted in their outdoor recreation offerings, Jones said. 

The feedback they received will help inform this master plan, which Jones said is due to be completed by Oct. 1 2024. 

“We need to protect our history, we need to showcase our natural scenery and then we need to do everything we can to bring tourists in,” Jones said.

He cited some dirt roads he learned about during a visit to Atmore, which connects Atmore and Montgomery. He said there are likely many other similar trails that are only known to locals that can be incorporated into the trail network.

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