Ecotourism could benefit area

Rachael Scarborough King
Star Staff Writer
Published: July 23, 2006

MOUNT CHEAHA – At their campsite in Cheaha State Park last week, Carl and Lorene Ponder created a classic camping scene: a tent tucked away in a grove of trees and a food-laden picnic table covered in a red checkered tablecloth.

Carl Ponder, a pastor from Newnan, Ga., was leading a camping trip for members of his church. In the past, Ponder was a frequent visitor to the park as the head of a Boy Scout troop.

“We just fell in love with Mount Cheaha,” he said. “It’s a huge natural wilderness … about as good as you can find in Alabama.”

He said his trip, and other camping excursions to Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia, fit under the definition of a popular economic buzzword: ecotourism, “where people come out to experience the great outdoors.”

“That’s why we’re here,” he said. “I think this is one of the finest activities that people can be involved in.”

So-called “ecotourists” often have a glamorous image, associated with foreign countries as Costa Rica and continents such as Australia.

But with natural attractions including Cheaha State Park, the Talladega National Forest and the Chief Ladiga Trail, Northeast Alabama is hoping to claim a place as one of the country’s great ecotourism destinations.

“We go from the state’s highest mountain to its deepest canyon,” Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce President Sherri Sumners said, praising the region’s “diversity of natural resources.”

Anniston Mayor Chip Howell agreed, saying he believes the city and surrounding area can lure these types of tourists.

“It’s one big ecotourism playground,” he said.

Getting away from it all

Local officials, environmentalists and business owners say Calhoun and Cleburne counties have natural attractions to draw from all over the country people whose idea of the perfect vacation is hiking or mountain biking, followed by a campfire dinner and a night in a sleeping bag.

Pete Conroy, director of the Environmental Policy Information Center at Jacksonville State University, said Calhoun County has the highest concentration of nationally protected natural areas anywhere in the country.

“They obviously make fantastic places as destination attractions for people who care about the outdoors, and the number of people who care about the outdoors is growing every single day,” Conroy said. “The numbers associated with ecotourism are astounding.”

A study several years ago showed ecotourism contributed $75 billion a year to the national economy, Conroy said.

“Those numbers are so spectacular that governors’ offices and senate offices have begun to take ecotourism very, very seriously,” he said.

What’s missing, according to Conroy, is the infrastructure that could support large numbers of tourists.

Patrick Wigley, owner of bicycle shop Wig’s Wheels in downtown Anniston, said bicycle magazines call the Southeast one of the best-kept secrets in biking.

“There’s always something to do outside around here, you don’t have to feel like you’re penned up, and that’s not just cycling,” Wigley said. “Anything you want to do in the outdoors, Calhoun County can provide it for you, and I think we could really capitalize on that.”

Wigley became familiar with the area while stationed at Fort McClellan.

“I got my orders to come to Alabama, and I … (thought) that it was flat and there’d be nothing to do to interest me,” he said. “I just fell in love with the area immediately.”

Three major ecotourism projects are in the works in Anniston. Howell said the city is negotiating the rights to the rail line that would extend the Chief Ladiga Trail and complete the rails-to-trails project to Atlanta.

Anniston officials are scouting a location for an access road and parking lot on Coldwater Mountain and completing the Bains Gap road in McClellan, which would open much of the Mountain Longleaf Wildlife Refuge to the public. That project should be completed by the fall, Wigley said..

“We rode those roads (at McClellan) when we were stationed there, and it is so beautiful,” Wigley said. “They’re making the improvements they need to make it completely safe, but I’m kind of like a kid waiting on Christmas for that place to open.”

Tom Nelson, a veterinarian at Quintard Veterinary Hospital, agreed Anniston is an ideal spot for outdoor activity. He and his family have gone on ecotourism vacations in Wyoming and Hawaii and are planning a trip to New Zealand, but they settled in Anniston in part because of its natural resources.

Nelson’s wife, Brooke, is from the area, and they have three sons, aged 20, 17 and 11. Nelson said they are a “very outdoors-oriented family.”

“If you start looking at it from a economic-development aspect, yeah, you could make things a little more accessible,” Nelson said. “But then, on the other hand, I don’t want to go over in that stuff; I like it remote and harder for people to get to.”

Nelson added that he doesn’t like the word “ecotourist,” because it implies traveling with a tourist group.

“(We do this for) just the beauty of enjoying God’s creations up close and personal and then to be able to get away from the everyday hubbub of life,” he said. “You know – the cell phones and the beepers and the e-mails. Just to get away.”

‘Toxic Town, U.S.A.’

Attempts to lure tourists to an area are all about one thing: money. Ecotourists tend to be from higher-income groups and spend money on expensive pieces of equipment, like tents, kayaks and mountain bikes.

In sheer numbers, most tourists to the area attend the NASCAR races at Talladega Superspeedway, Sumners said. She added that business travelers are the “bread and butter” for the hotels off of Interstate 20.

As Anniston tries to attract the dollars that come with ecotourism, it contends with an image that is the opposite of eco-friendly.

“We are an oxymoron in the ecotourism (industry) in that we’ve been monikered as ‘Toxic Town, U.S.A.’ … and have some of the largest protected (natural) areas contiguous with Anniston and Calhoun County as any part of the county,” Howell said.

The PCBs contamination in West Anniston received national media in recent years. And at McClellan, only 3,000 acres of the 9,000-acre Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge are open, due to the ongoing cleanup of military hazards.

Howell said the best way to contend with the image that ecotourism in Anniston could be dangerous is to publicly continue with decontamination efforts.

“We need to finish the cleanup that is well under way and don’t need to do anything to stop or prohibit that,” he said.

Wigley, the bike shop owner, said he thought marketing the area as an ecotourism spot could help its image and stimulate the economy.

“That could really, really change the face of Anniston, in my opinion,” Wigley said. “It could really stimulate some economic growth.

“If a little more effort would be put into a few projects, it could positively impact the reputation that Anniston’s gotten with regards to contamination.

“It would be a positive thing to everybody.”

Wigley said he hoped the city could recover from its negative image.

“There’s too much here to offer to not try to exploit it and get some positive economic repercussions from it,” he said.

Howell said the development of ecotourism sites is a priority but merely is one of many issues facing the city.

“We have a lot of plates to spin, and those are some of them,” Howell said. “I know that they’ll be addressed and discussed in the budget process coming up in the next 30 to 45 days and hopefully funded as best we can.”

He added that the Coldwater Mountain project could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars but that the city hopes state grants will fund the Chief Ladiga Trail.

Nelson, the veterinarian, said he was surprised places like Cheaha State Park are not more popular with Anniston residents.

“It’s interesting the people you come across that live in this area that don’t take advantage of the things they have to offer,” he said. “When it’s in your own back yard, sometimes you don’t realize what you have available.”

Ponder, the camper at Cheaha last week, agreed many people aren’t aware of the ecotourism possibilities in Northeast Alabama. He said a friend of his in nearby Georgia, an avid hiker, never had heard of Mount Cheaha.

“I don’t think it’s as well known as it could be,” Ponder said. “Of course, it’s got some negatives.

“The big drawback is the Alabama summer, and it gets to be debilitatingly hot in the afternoons.”

But he said the top of the mountain, at 2,407 feet, offers relief from the insects and humidity. The park also allows hikers and campers the chance to connect with nature.

“I came up in January and hiked out on the trail down into the wilderness area for five hours,” Ponder said, “and during that whole time my friend and I never saw another human being.

“When we stood on the edge of the vista, you could hardly see a sign of human development. … It was like you were taken back 300 years.”

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