Maybe if the weather had been better, more people would have attended the reopening of Claude D. Kelley Recreational Area and Little River State Forest – commonly known as Little River. The folks who did turn out Saturday, March 17, seemed to enjoy getting reacquainted with the park and sharing memories.
Gary Cole with the Alabama Forestry Commission said about 60 people attended. While it was not raining that morning, the skies were overcast and the forecast was gloomy. Among those attending were several public office holders who may have a direct impact on the future of Little River.
A press conference was held at 11 a.m., with Alabama State Forester Rick Oates thanking everyone for attending and saying the Commission is excited to reopen the park, calling it a great asset. Oates said the goal is to “get the gate open and get people out again.”
Each office holder was given an opportunity to address the gathering.
Ala. Senator Greg Albritton thanked Gary Cole and Rick Oates for their roles in getting the park reopened. In fact, Cole came out of retirement to reopen the park that he once managed.
“It’s a tragedy to have it closed,” Albritton said. “It’s the legislature’s intent to keep the park open and make improvements. [This area] is unknown and unused. We’ve got to take care of it.”
Ala. Representative Alan Baker echoed Albritton’s comments about a concerted effort to maintain the park.
“We will explore opportunities for funding,” Baker said. “I know there’s a bridge in the park that needs replacing. We would like to expand operations.”
Baker said he continues to hear memories about the park.
Ala. Representative Harry Shiver recalled fun times at Little River.
“This place brings back so many memories,” he said. “When I was fifteen, sixteen or seventeen, we used to come up here and dance to the jukebox. It was fun … We’re going to have to make sure they get money in the budget. This is a fine park. We’re going to try to get everything back like it used to be. Get the old jukebox back!”
“The Commission has expressed concerns about assisting,” Escambia County Commissioner Larry White said. “We’re exploring what we can do.”
Oates added, “It’s going to take a partnership. It’s going to take the public coming out and using these facilities.”
Commissioner Brandon Smith was not able to be at the morning press conference but was to attend later in the day.
The Alabama Forestry Commission is governed by a seven-member Board of Commissioners appointed by the governor of Alabama. Jane Russell currently chairs the Commission. She was at Little River Saturday – her first visit to the park.
To the politicians who pledged support, she said, “We’re holding you to it! The commission is going to work hard to get this going.”
Cole was the last to speak.
“I locked the gate last year. I hated to do that,” he said. “Like Rick said, we have to have people use the park.”
Cole said there are plans to have horseback riding trails for folks who want to bring their horses out, two hiking trails, and a biking trail.
For now, the park is open for day use on weekends.