Jean O’Connor-Snyder intern Amy Clark reflects on the impact of COVID-19 on the outdoor sports industry in Alabama’s Black Belt.
The outdoor sports industry in Alabama’s Black Belt continues to flourish as more and more Alabamians head outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 has had devastating effects on the nation’s economy. However, the pandemic has led many Alabamians to start fishing, hunting or bird watching as regular sports seasons were cut short.
During the lockdown, Gov. Kay Ivey revealed that she would be allowing parks to remain open, viewing them as an essential business.
James Lawler, also known as Big Daddy, has been promoting Black Belt natural resource assets for 40 years. His popular Facebook page, “Getting Outdoors with BDL”, and radio show feature regular updates on fishing, hunting and other outdoor activities.
“Natural resources are our biggest assets in my opinion,” said Lawler. “We didn’t realize what an asset hunting and fishing was 20 years ago because it was just everyday life for us.”
Today, people travel from across the nation to see what the Black Belt has to offer in terms of outdoor recreation. However, it was only recently that Wilcox County realized the potential economic impact of the outdoor sports industry on their area.
Lawler said one overarching issue in gauging the economic impact of these sports is that measuring the impact is difficult, if not impossible.
“We didn’t have studies done so there was no way to see how many jobs it created. There was no way to judge the tax revenue it brought in,” said Lawler.
According to a 2019 report by the Alabama Black Belt Adventures Association, the ABBAA began investing in lodges and hunting grounds in 2009 to boost the economy of the Black Belt area.
Wildlife tourism has since grown to be a $1 billion industry in the region. A study by Jacksonville State University’s Center for Economics showed that freshwater fishing alone grossed $1.4 billion for the state of Alabama in 2019.
Lawler said he expects that this is a low estimate of the true impact because there are relevant businesses excluded from this estimate such as taxidermists, deer processors, convenience stores that sell gas to incoming tourists and restaurants that cater to hunters.
While the wildlife tourism industry has been growing for years, COVID-19 caused a recent surge in Alabama residents eager to participate in outdoor activities. This is great in regards to economic impact, but Lawler said he is concerned about how this increase will affect the natural resources in the area.
“All of the hunting and fishing, all the money and revenue it creates, is only as good as the resources,” Lawler said. “Our conservation department does a great job with that.”
Kay Donaldson, the director of the Alabama Bass Trail, recognizes the impact of COVID-19 on wildlife tourism in Alabama.
“More people are fishing than ever before,” said Donaldson.
She said that major retailers are unable to keep fishing equipment in stock because many products are manufactured overseas, and COVID-19 has shut down some suppliers.
Donaldson said boat sales in Alabama have increased by 30% in the past year, and all fishing equipment sales have increased since the last year as well.
Like Lawler, Donaldson said she believes that Alabama has not fully recognized the value of Alabama’s natural resources and potential economic impact of the wildlife tourism industry. However, she believes this is changing.
Donaldson does not expect to see the influx of outdoor sport participation to deplete the natural resources in Alabama.
“The natural part of it is what is going to determine that. The lakes will sustain what they sustain,” said Donaldson. “The weather has more to do with that than the pressure the lakes undergo.”
Chuck Sykes, the director of the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said he remains hopeful that Alabamians’ interest in hunting and fishing will continue to grow when COVID-19 restrictions loosen.
“Nationally, state wildlife and fish agencies have been going through a relevancy issue,” said Sykes. “This was nothing we could prepare for, but now we’re the thing to do.”
Sykes said he has yet to notice any negative impact on the lakes’ productivity in Alabama, but turkey populations have been affected.
Sykes said that turkey hunters could not travel out of state to hunt with COVID-19’s restrictions, so hunters in Alabama stayed in-state to hunt turkey.
“We had about a 47% increase in individuals who killed a turkey this year and game checked it through our system,” he added.
Sykes prepared surveys to determine if this increase was caused by experienced hunters game checking more turkeys or first-time hunters.
All agree that COVID-19 is shining a light on the value of wildlife tourism in terms of economic potential. And, avid promoters like Lawler, who has always treasured the natural resources of the Black Belt region, expect that more Alabamians will grow to appreciate the benefits as they head to the great outdoors.
Amy Clark is an Auburn University senior majoring in economics and journalism. As a Living Democracy JOIP intern, she worked remotely with community partners Sulynn Creswell, executive director, and Kristin Law, arts programs and marketing director, at Black Belt Treasures in Camden.