Expanding boundary of DeSoto State Park a smart investment

One of DeKalb County’s most popular attractions is set to grow as DeSoto State Park expands its boundaries near DeSoto Falls. During a recent press conference, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) Commissioner Chris Blankenship announced the purchase of a 157-acre tract.

Many of us take for granted the importance and the allure this place holds to millions of people who flock to DeKalb County just to share a little in what we are privileged to live with each day. Now, thanks to the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, more of what we have will remain in its natural state, offering a larger opportunity to experience Mother Nature.

The State bought 157-acres near DeSoto Falls at a public auction and announced last week that this will enable them to add additional trails, improving the capacity for more people to enjoy the popular attraction. I’m told the alternative was a proposed subdivision, which raised alarms about overcrowding and pollution.

The move to save lands for future generations isn’t unprecedented.

In 2009, The Nature Conservancy bought 2,100+ acres south of DeSoto State Park on the opposite side of Little River and east of the Blanche Community and sold 1,500 acres to Forever Wild, which is Alabama’s land preservation program while other parts of the land were transferred to the National Park System to be added to Little River Canyon National Preserve.

The following year, a bill sponsored by Sen. Lowell Barron annexed a large part of DeSoto State Park and Jacksonville State University’s Little River Canyon Field School into Fort Payne.

Smart moves by leaders who realized that the value of these places goes far beyond selling pricey seasonal homes. These places belong to all of us and can be used to benefit our local tax base.

It's up to us to adequately promote the area to visitors

This DeSoto land deal gives us more to promote, but it is up to local governments, local organizations and local businesses to take advantage of the opportunity to draw more people to DeKalb County and convince those who live here to stay here.

Another positive step was the county commission’s decision last week to buy a three-acre property on which to build a new tourism center very close to our offices.

In the past, Fort Payne was overly dependent on manufacturing, so it hurt badly when our main industry became unable to compete in a global market. Year after year, tourism pumps millions and millions of dollars into our local economy, and that number continues to rise. Even during the pandemic, tourism rose as Fort Payne became an obvious great choice for getting out of the congested cities to enjoy wide open spaces.

We should aggressively market our natural beauty and not simply count on the popularity of the Alabama Band. We've been extraordinarily blessed to have these country music superstars call this home. They provide an incredible foundation for national name brand recognition that we should build on. 

Let’s earmark funding so tourism remains a stable industry with marketing funds that can be counted on from year to year. We can take greater strides toward putting our "neck of the woods" in the fronts of the minds of both travelers and local people just looking to escape from everyday live for a few days or a few hours.

We should promote our attractions, shopping, eating and lodging in a way that attracts potential visitors to a leisurely weekend vacation to our area. One of the attractive selling points is the fact we are a short drive to get out of traffic and into a more leisurely environment of less crowded, scenic venues, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, cabins, campgrounds and hotels.

You know, getting away from it all but not having to travel far to do it.

We also need to continue to invest in tourism to distinguish our area from Lookout Mountain attractions in Tennessee and northwest Georgia. Rock City and Ruby Falls do a great job with their marketing, while Chattanooga has firmly established itself as a paradise for those who love being in the Great Outdoors.

Key to this is finding out what travelers like to do and what their specific interests are. 

The list of fun things is an embarrassment of riches, including Little River Canyon National Preserve, Lookout Mountain Parkway, DeSoto State Park, High Falls Park and Bucks Pocket, the Alabama Fan Club & Museum, the Mentone summer camps, the Boom Days Heritage Celebration, Courtyard Concerts, Collinsville Trade Day, Cloudmont Ski & Golf Resort, the Opera House, the Depot Museum, the Hosiery Museum, tons of rental cabins, bed and breakfasts, campgrounds, hotels, shopping, restaurants, museums, antiques and flea markets, the World’s Longest Yard Sale and Antique Alley. The JSU Little River Canyon Field School alone is incredible, but how locals have taken a couple of hours to visit it?

I don't know if you can truly appreciate how amazing DeKalb County is until you've left it and seen other places. Indeed, some people feel only a longing to go live somewhere else. When you return home, you get a sense of just how blessed we are here. 

Some of the opportunities are cloaked in the darker aspects of our state's past. Just as Birmingham has reconciled its troubled history and now honors civil rights leaders, DeKalb County should not shy away from using the Trail of Tears as an opportunity to teach our society that we must never again allow genocides like the forced removal of the Cherokee in 1836. Our own Manitou Cave will host an event Sept. 18 as the National Park Service formally recognizes it as a Trail of Tears interpretive center.

Spending money on marketing promotions and making the most of these opportunities is only half of the formula.

But it will be fruitless if we do not take a good hard look through the eyes of visitors traveling through this area. Noticing that roadside garbage that we've seen so frequently that it barely even registers anymore. We need to be shaken out of complacency and a resignation that things simply are a certain way because that's how they've just always been. I'm talking about things like getting fired up about improving the looks of storefronts and neighborhoods, working together for some consistency of presentation so guests leave with the concrete sense that Fort Payne and DeKalb County are tangibly special: An experience worth raving about and for magazines and TV shows to package segments about. That's what leads to the long game of money coming into this area, which translates into more interesting things to do, more funds for improved infrastructure and venture capitalists recognizing a gold mine of potential. 

The additional acreage at DeSoto will further protect the delicate ecosystem in and around Little River. The canyon’s forests, cliffs, caves, boulder fields, high-energy streams and rivers support imperiled species such as the blue shiner, the green pitcher plant and the Pigeon Mountain salamander. We all have a responsibility to protect our planet as much as possible.

Sometimes it’s difficult to balance the needs of individuals and business with the needs of nature, but that does not mean we stop trying. Instead, we must try harder.

I encourage everyone to reexamine what is in our own back yard in DeKalb County. Take the time to travel our trails, gaze upon our amazing waterfalls and bask in the peace to be found. We know you won’t be disappointed, and we are willing to bet you might discover something new and come away with a greater love and appreciation of your hometown.

— Steven Stiefel is the publisher of the Times-Journal. His column appears in Saturday editions. Email: steven.stiefel@times-journal.com.

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