BANKHEAD NATIONAL FOREST - A proposal has been made to the Winston County Commission that a canoe or kayak rental business on the Sipsey River would provide an economic boom for Winston County as well as showcase the natural beauty of the Bankhead National Forest.
However, several hurdles must first be overcome before such a project can become a reality, the commission informed Fred Couch, founder/manager of the Alabama Scenic River Trail.
Couch presented figures to commissioners at a recent commission meeting, showing that millions of dollars can be generated in tourism for whitewater river trails. Couch also presented information he gathered from whitewater.com, showing that Winston County had 12 whitewater streams.
“That is unprecedented nationwide,” Couch pointed out.
The Alabama Scenic River Trail was founded by Couch 15 years ago as a mission to put a name on local rivers as a major tourism draw.
“I am here to talk to you about what is possible in your county,” Couch told commissioners.
Couch then got specific, mentioning the area of the Sipsey River near Highway 33, that is used as a take-out point for canoes or kayaks, would be a great location for an outfitter business. An outfitter provides canoes, kayaks, life jackets, etc., rentals as part of a private business, officials explained. Outfitters would provide transportation to drop-off points, and pick up participants from the river, officials added.
The take-out area near Highway 33 is on private property, with the county commission owning the right-of-way to the property. The Bankhead National Forest borders the property at an approximately three-mile distance, forestry officials noted.
“I need you to go forward with it,” Couch told commissioners.
“When I started this, there were eight outfitters in the state, now there’s 48. That’s created 300 jobs,” Couch said.
People planning recreational trips look on the scenic river trail’s websites and determine the location of campsites, Couch said.
Although Winston County’s approximate 23,000 person population does not make for a big tax base, improvements to these sites would be possible through grants, according to Couch.
“You need to promote yourself as a whitewater wonder,” Couch pointed out.
The private property at the take-out point near Highway 33 needs to be improved in order to bring it up to standards for an outfitter business, according to Couch.
The area was once used as a canoe or kayak trail years ago, but the concrete ramp going down to the Sipsey and former road bed have become deteriorated, with sections broken off and other areas overgrown with weeds and other natural growth.
In to not tamper with the natural beauty of the area, Couch suggested PVC pipes be placed 18 inches apart as a place where kayaks or canoes can slide in and out of the water. This will replace the concrete slide areas, which can still be seen.
The put-in point for canoes and kayaks is located at the Sipsey River on federally-owned lands of the Bankhead National Forest on Cranal Road. Guidelines would be strict under the forest service in that area, forestry officials pointed out.
“I am very interested in it,” responded Commission Chairman Roger Hayes. “I like the idea, and I like the idea of it being brought into our county.”
“I really want to bring tourism here. That’s what we’re about,” Couch returned.
The outdoor industry supports twice as many jobs as automobile manufacturers, he noted. This included $20 billion in salaries and $857 million in state and local taxes, he said.
“I agree with you on that,” Hayes responded.
State Representative Tracy Estes, who was attending the meeting, noted that the need to develop the area of private land near forest property should be brought to the ears of those at the federal level.
Commissioner David Cummings pointed out the county did not receive help from the federal level in such projects. Commissioner Bobby Everett added the county had looked into placing boat ramps in such areas, but were met with hesitancy due to endangered species.
“There is some push back from the government to hinder things like that,” Everett noted, adding he agreed with Couch’s proposal.
“We’ve got the water. We’ve got the means for it, but I am like Roger and David, we have been slapped around pretty good about accessibility,” Everett stated.
“We will get back in touch with you,” Hayes told Couch. “I think there are some things here that are going to be workable for us.”
Hayes added that Bankhead District Forest Ranger Andy Scott has worked well with the commission.
Hayes told Couch he would talk to Winston County Extension Agent Zack Brannon about this.
Brannon confirmed that Couch had approached him about the proposed project.
“One thing Mr. Couch wanted to figure out from us, isi f we have a River Kids program which we do,” said Brannon. “That is a program that many years ago Mr. Couch and his colleagues started.”
Couch noted the River Kids program became possible thanks to a grant from the National Parks Service.
That program, Brannon explained, later became a 4-H program, where 1,200 youth a year from Winston and surrounding counties are taught canoe or kayak skills and safety.
“After they learn, they want to go somewhere and paddle,” said Couch. “You have got the places where they can paddle.
“Those folks and their parents are going to spend roughly about $100 a day, and that is going to turn over seven times in your community in gasoline, in food,” Couch pointed out.
“There are several (canoe) routes here, but there is no outfitter here to take people to it,” Brannon pointed out.
“I think there are some issues and some hurdles,” Brannon admitted. “There are several different groups and organizations that need to be involved in this.
“A lot of the people are going to have to come to the table,” added Brannon. “That is always a hurdle, no matter who you are dealing with.
“People have been using that (take-out point) for years,” said Hayes. “When we got the right-of-way, I didn’t realize it was in the shape it is in now.
“We (as a county) get very little money out of that 90 something thousand acres (in the Bankhead Forest). If we can have some kind of entertainment out of it or something that can be used by the general public, that hopefully (would) bring some income to our area,” he said.
“The county has neglected that in the last few years, be it what it is,” Hayes pointed out. “The county doesn’t own it, but we have access to the right-of-way that gives us the right to work on it.
Scott noted the forest service could not be involved in any development in the take-out area of the Sipsey located on Highway 33, due to the property at that area being privately owned. The area of Sipsey River on Cranal Road is another matter, Scott explained.
“If an outfitter were to want to make a commercial enterprise, there’s a process called a special use permit they would need to submit to us with their full proposal of what they planned to do, how they planned to do it,” Scott explained.
“That proposal would have to go through a number of screening criteria,” Scott pointed out. “If it got to an environmental analysis, that would inform the forest service decision as to if that use could be permitted. We would review a proposal if it was presented to us.”
Part of this process would be an environmental study determining if the proposed project would have a negative effect on certain habitats or endangered species, Scott said.
Concerning the issue of locating an outfitter near Highway 33, Scott added, “It depends on how much they were going to construct,” Scott noted. “It just depends on exactly what they would propose of whether or not it would be on forest service property.
“The activity itself, putting the canoers or kayakers in, if it was the Sipsey area or passing through parts, would still require a special-use permit,” Scott pointed out.
For more on the Alabama Scenic River Trail and its work, visit their website, www.alabamascenicrivertrail.com.
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.