Born and raised in Monroe County, Newell Barnes hunted at every opportunity. He lived the sum total of his 86 years in this game-rich, southwest Alabama county and witnessed lots of changes in his lifetime. From this first-hand perspective, he would be absolutely astonished at the relative abundance of game populations and resultant hunting opportunities we enjoy today.
As his only grandson, I was the sole beneficiary of his concerted efforts to pass along the hunting heritage. The countless hours we spent together roaming around in the woods left an indelible mark on me, a mark I wouldn’t rub off even if I could.
We hunted squirrels, the most abundant and popular game animal of the era, up through the 1970s, when deer and turkey populations were starting to take hold due to restoration efforts. Granddaddy killed two turkeys and one deer in a whole lifetime of hunting. There simply were few if any to be killed in the era in which he lived and hunted - not even in Monroe County.
I’ve still got some of the old 12-gauge buckshot shells he carried around in his hunting vest just on the off chance he saw a deer. The old Peters brand shells, with casings made of thick paper instead of the more modern plastic, bear testimony to the general absence of deer. Granddaddy carried the shells around so many years he wore the writing off them. When they were new, the casings would have had "00 BUCK" stamped on the side. Only by the telltale bulges of individual buckshot pellets through the sides of the shell casings can you now tell what shot size they contain.
Barnes’ generation came along in the heyday of quail hunting. "Partridges," as he called them, were abundant in the era of the patch farm. As a landscape of weedy fence rows and fallow fields gave way to more modern, efficient agricultural practices, and as reforestation of cutover land occurred, quail habitat was largely lost. However, with the single exception of quail, game populations are far more abundant now than ever before.
Every time I travel to Monroe County to hunt on my little piece of dirt that holds the rest of the world together, I wonder about what Granddaddy would think if he could only experience what I’m experiencing. The land came from my great aunt who inherited it from the widow of a steamboat captain. The very first time Granddaddy took me hunting, we went there. Now, all these years later, I can go there and sit with my back against the same big beech tree he and I sat with our backs against. The older I get, the more I’m drawn to this place.
Things have changed for the better, though. Now there are abundant deer and turkey; back then, there were almost none.
Some things about the place have changed little, like the perennial stream cutting through the tract. The free-flowing branch originates from two springs in a high bluff and never runs dry. One of my earliest memories is of drinking water dipped from the branch in Granddaddy’s hat. It tasted oddly like sweat. Every time I step across the flowing water now, I’m reminded of the occasion, and it starts me to thinking about how lucky we are compared with our grandfathers’ generation.
For 76 years, hunters have paid for work by state wildlife agencies across the country to bring back species that were near the brink of extinction. Through hunting license purchases and matching 3-1 federal monies derived from excise taxes collected at the manufacturers’ level on hunting arms and ammunition, hunters have paid for restoration of sustainable populations of deer, turkey and a host of other species, both hunted and non-hunted. To this day, the management and protection of fish and wildlife in Alabama is totally funded by license-buying hunters and anglers. There are no general tax dollars paying to put conservation enforcement officers and Wildlife and Fisheries biologists on the ground and the water across the state.
Yet, everybody benefits from abundant and healthy wildlife populations. The benefits, economically and societally, are appreciable. The vast majority of people who hunt and fish in Alabama are residents of the state. Ninety-two percent (492,000) of the people who hunt in Alabama are residents of the state. However, some 44,000 non-residents travel to Alabama to hunt each year. Sixty-nine percent (473,000) of the people who fish in Alabama are residents; 31% are from other states.
According to the "2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting & Wildlife Associated Recreation," the economic impact of hunting in Alabama annually is $1.8 billion, spinning off over $104 million in state and local taxes. The economic impact of freshwater fishing amounts to $780 million, generating $51 million in state and local taxes. The majority of this spending is attributable to resident hunters and anglers. Most are hard-working, middle-class people. Together, hunting and fishing provide over 21 million man-days of wholesome outdoor recreation annually in Alabama.
Our grandfathers would be amazed at the abundance we now enjoy. The very thought of the huge economic value now attached to hunting and fishing would be mind-boggling. We typically see more deer in one afternoon than they saw in an entire lifetime. We hear more turkeys gobble on one morning from one location than would have been heard in a whole county for an entire spring.
Tom Kelly summed it up best when he wrote the closing line in an essay titled "The Bad Old Days" that reads, "The good old days are right this very minute."
To learn more about this incredible wildlife restoration success story and the important role of hunters, go to www.huntingheritagefoundation.com.