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Little River reopening

Gary Cole at Little River

Little River State Park, Claude D. Kelley State Park, Little River State Forest – whatever the official name, most folks have called it simply Little River. Once the destination for droves of people looking for a good place to swim, camp and cook out, the park has fallen on hard times in recent years through changes in management and actually closing. But the park is re-opening this Saturday.

Gary Cole, who has been with the Alabama Forestry Commission for 38 years, came out of retirement to oversee the opening of the park. Work has been going on for weeks with employees from several counties coming in to clean up, burn off, and do general maintenance on the grounds that have been unattended for more than a year.

This is a homecoming of sorts for Cole. He served as Little River State Forest manager beginning in 1996. The Alabama State Parks Division ran the park, and he managed the forest. It’s doubtful that many people separate the two when talking about Little River, but they are two entities. To differentiate, the names will now be Claude D. Kelley Recreational Area and Little River State Forest.

It’s all owned by the Forestry Commission, more than 2,000 acres, with the park occupying about 150 acres, about 25 acres of which is the lake.

After Hurricane Ivan, the Forestry Commission took over management from the Parks Division, Cole said, but in 2010 or 2011, the Commission decided they couldn’t be a parks service. Cole wanted to keep the park open, and an agreement was reached with Ironman Outdoor Ministries to manage the park. While the organization made improvements to the park and offered a number of events and services, they had to relinquish management, and the park closed.

The park opens to the public this Saturday, March 17, at 8 a.m. Lunch will be served at noon.

For now, amenities are limited.

“We don’t have the manpower right now to offer full services,” Cole said. “There’s no camping right now. We hope to offer it again in the future.”

The concern is, of course, if people will use the park.

So why reopen the park?

“To be good stewards,” Cole said. “There is a lot of potential here. Isn’t it a shame to let all this go to waste?”

Monday, March 12, State Forester Rick Oates spoke to the Escambia County Commission, reminding them that park management isn’t something with which the Alabama Forestry Commission is normally involved.

“The Forestry Commission is responsible for doing three things — protecting our forests, sustaining and managing our forests and educating the public about forestry,” Oates said. “Park management is not really our primary mission, but we have this great asset down here that we really do have to open back up to the public.”

Oates said it will be open only two days a week, at least until an agreement is reached with one of two groups that have expressed interest in managing it.

“We’re going to put our toes in the water and see how this will work,” the state forester said. “It will be open on a limited basis for the time being. It will be open for day use on Saturdays and Sundays (from 8 a.m. until sundown on Saturdays and from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Sundays), and our plan is to eventually open it up to primitive camping and recreational vehicle camping. Hopefully, we’ll also have it open from noon until sundown on Fridays.

“Our goal is to get somebody in there to manage the park in the future. We’re talking with two groups right now that are very interested in it. We hope to have something worked out with one of those groups in two to three weeks.”

Oates said State Rep. Harry Shiver, State Senator Greg Albritton and “several other elected officials” are expected to attend the reopening ceremony this Saturday.

“Hopefully we’ll have a good crowd out there,” he said, adding that AFC has received numerous requests over the past 14 months to reopen the park, a sentiment he said he shares.

“The more I learn about it, the more excited I am to get it back open,” he told county commissioners. “We have gotten a lot of calls from the public that really want it to be reopened. We don’t have a lot of resources to put into it, but we’re doing what we can to get it open.”

Oates did not ask commissioners for any financial assistance, but did request that the county see if there was a way it could at least help with mowing the grass on the giant wilderness area. There is also a need for repairs to the bridge that leads to the RV camping area, but the Forestry Commission is currently in talks with Alabama Department of Transportation and Gov. Kay Ivey’s office about that problem.

County Commission Chairman Raymond Wiggins agreed that the park, which lies between Escambia and Monroe counties, is an asset to the people of both areas.

“The park is very, very important to our people, especially the ones on that end of the county and in Monroe County,” said Wiggins. “We’re looking into different avenues to see what we might can do to help. We’ll see what happens.”