“I will tell you one thing, we’re going to miss him,” said Dr. Paul Johnson, program supervisor for the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center, near the city of Marion in rural Perry County. “I think everyone is sad to see him leave.”
Lawley, 65, of Pell City flew to Chattanooga to meet with the former director of the Tennessee Aquarium Research Center.
“He flew to Chattanooga to get me,” Johnson joked.
But it was no joke.
Lawley had a vision, and he shared that vision of the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center with Johnson.
The center, which sits on 36 acres near the Cahaba River, is the largest state non-game species recovery program of its kind in the United States.
Officials say the center in rural South Alabama does more than just raise, restore and release threatened and endangered snails, mussels and fish into state waters — it works to improve water quality throughout the state, which indirectly improves the quality of life for Alabama residents and visitors.
Johnson said the center’s goal is to improve water quality in Alabama creeks, streams, rivers and lakes by introducing threatened and endangered aquatic species to different water sheds.
These aquatic species, like mussels and snails, will help filter or clean the water naturally, officials say.
Johnson said he hopes the restoration of endangered and threatened aquatic life will also spark more public interest in helping improve and restore the quality of water in various water sheds throughout the state.
He said improvements in the state’s water quality will also mean less regulatory burdens placed on the state by federal agencies, like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Only a few months ago, mussels were released into Choccolocco Creek. The creek, which is contaminated with PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyles, feeds into Logan Martin Lake.
Choccolocco Creek, Johnson said, is a “highly diverse system historically.”
“It was one of the most diverse systems in the entire Coosa River water shed,” he said.
Johnson agrees it could take decades before the transplanted mussels from the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center rebuild normal populations and complete their work filtering the water, but the effort is the right step forward in naturally improving the water quality of Choccolocco Creek and other bodies of water throughout the state.
“It took a monumental effort to get us to this point,” Johnson said, adding that it could not have happened without strong leadership — and a “visionary.”
Lawley said the idea for improving water quality in the state’s streams, creeks, rivers and lakes by natural means came to him during the night.
He recalled what his former Pell City High School science teacher, John Slovensky, said about mussels and snails — that they are nature’s filters for cleaning water.
He said the state facility near Marion was basically dormant.
“We were doing nothing with it,” Lawley said.
Johnson said the center now draws national attention in a state that has a “breadbasket full” of freshwater biodiversity, and more threatened and endangered species than any other state in the country.
“The Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center is a big-time accomplishment that’s going to pay huge dividends down the road,” said Tim Gothard, executive director for the Alabama Wildlife Federation. “He (Lawley) should take great pride in knowing that he helped established that center.”
CONSERVATIONIST OF THE YEAR
While serving as the state conservation commissioner, Lawley received the 2006 Alabama Tourism Advocate Award for his efforts in promoting Alabama as the ultimate destination for hunters, anglers, bird watchers, campers, boaters, hikers and other people who enjoy the outdoors.
Through Lawley’s efforts, the conservation department’s website, television shows and magazines showcase destinations across Alabama, educating the public about what the Yellow Hammer state has to offer and making “Outdoor Alabama” a common household name.
“Barnett, early on, did a better job of marketing Alabama outdoors and tourism, not only in the state but out of state,” Gothard said, adding that the conservation department’s website was revamped, providing a tremendous resource of information for the public. “It provided an outstanding way to educate the public about everything.”
Lawley not only promoted Alabama as a destination spot, but helped educate the public about all the natural resources in the state.
“The diversity of Alabama is unbelievable,” Lawley said in a recent interview. “It’s a beautiful state.”
Gothard said Lawley’s commitment and hard work did not go unnoticed by the non-profit conservation group, the Alabama Wildlife Federation.
Most recently, Lawley was the 2010 recipient of an Alabama Wildlife Federation’s Governor’s Conservation Achievement Award, the prestigious Conservationist of the Year award.
Lawley was recommended at large for the award and was unanimously selected by the Alabama Wildlife Federation Board.
Gothard said Lawley has a true passion for the outdoors, the key ingredient to being an outstanding commissioner.
“To Barnett, it’s not a job, it’s a passion,” Gothard said. “Not only does he have a passion for conservation, he has a passion for public service.”
He said Lawley’s work has yielded great benefits for the people of the state, “benefits that will last forever.”
Gothard said Lawley’s hard work and dedication were ways to give back to the resources he and others have enjoyed.
He said during Lawley’s reign as commissioner, he brought the conservation department into the 21st century.
Prior to Lawley taking over as commissioner, hunting and fishing licenses were filled out by hand. Now the majority of hunting and fishing license are prepared electronically, making it more efficient for the consumer.
“Barnett knows and understands the consumer,” Gothard said, adding that the commissioner provided the necessary leadership. “That was a big, big step for Alabama.”
He said Lawley was very effective working with all outdoor organizations, like AFW, to get things accomplished through legislation.
“It takes leadership to pull all those groups together,” Gothard said.
One of the long-needed changes Lawley spearheaded was the increase in hunting and fishing license fees, which provided needed money for the conservation department’s operations.
“We would be in a major, major hurt right now, if it wasn’t for that increase,” Gothard said. “And it was passed during a climate that even increased fees were labeled as a tax. That’s a tribute to Barnett’s leadership.”
He said Lawley also did an outstanding job leading the Forever Wild Program, which helps secure lands for public recreational use.
Gothard said there were some wise purchases made while Lawley served as commissioner.
He said Lawley also managed conflict “exceptionally well.”
“Hunting, fishing and natural resources involve a lot of people with a lot of opinions,” he said. “Barnett was open and accessible to everyone.”
He said Lawley also did an outstanding job handling two major disasters, Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill, using state resources appropriately in the face of both a natural and man-made disaster.
“Barnett is a great individual,” Gothard said. “I personally appreciate his commitment and the job he did during his eight years as the commissioner.”
Members of the Alabama Department of Conservation Advisory Board lauded Lawley’s efforts and trusted his advice.
“I believe Barnett has done more in his tenure to improve so many aspects of what the Conservation Department does,” said Grant Lynch of Talladega, who is one of 10 members of the Conservation Advisory Board.
Lynch, who has served on the Advisory Board during Lawley’s entire tenure as commissioner, said the Pell City native looks at all sides of issues facing the Department of Conservation before making recommendations to the Advisory Board.
“He has protected hunters’ and fishermen’s rights, but he has also protected the rights of landowners,” Lynch said.
He said through Lawley’s efforts, the Conservation Department has made a positive impact for the people of Alabama, an impact that will continue for future generations.
Grady Hartzog, a Eufaula businessman who also serves on the state’s Conservation Advisory Board, said Lawley has supported and continues to support the continuation of the Forever Wild Program.
He said the Constitutional Amendment that established the Forever Wild Program in 1992, only established the program for 20 years. It will end without further action by legislators next year.
“Barnett has really been pushing for the renewal,” Hartzog said.
Since 1992, more than 220,000 acres of public recreational lands were purchased through the Forever Wild Program.
Hartzog commended Lawley for working to bring various outdoor groups together for the benefit of the state and the public it serves.
He said conservation department operates on its own. It receives no money from the state’s general fund, so the license fee increase was vital for the department.
Hartzog also said Lawley came up with the idea to have a special license, the Wildlife Heritage License, for people who enjoy the outdoors but don’t hunt or fish.
He said some federal funds the conservation department receives are based on the amount of money raised from hunting and fishing licenses. The Wildlife Heritage License counts as hunting and fishing licenses, helping the state receive more federal matching dollars.
“That was real smart on his part,” he said.
Hartzog said limiting the number of bucks, or male deer, a hunter could bag during a season to three, while increasing the number of days hunters could kill does, or female deer, was a biologically sound decision.
He said the changes in bag limits and season days have improved deer management and deer quality.
Hartzog said while federal authorities were closing coastal waters to fishing because of the BP oil disaster — there were questions about the public consuming fish contaminated with dispersants to break up the oil — Lawley was encouraging fishing through “catch and release.” This allowed people to continue what they loved doing — fishing. It also allowed the public to avoid the possible dangers of consuming contaminated Gulf Coast fish.
“I hate to see Barnett go,” Hartzog said. “Barnett has been a real good commissioner. He’s done this state one tremendous job.”
The oil spill in April became a full-time job for the commissioner.
Lawley said the ramifications of the infamous BP oil spill are still uncertain.
“You won’t know your critter damage until two years from now,” he said.
Lawley was appointed as commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in 2003 by Gov. Bob Riley.
The governor has never regretted Lawley’s appointment.
Riley said what he enjoyed most during his tenure as governor was the opportunity to work with his cabinet, and Lawley is “absolutely typical of that cabinet.
“He’s passionate about what he does,” Riley said of Lawley. “And he’s one of the smarter people I have had the opportunity to work with.”
He said Lawley was proactive and was one of his most visible cabinet members, addressing the public about the changes and issues facing the Conservation Department.
“It has been incredible to watch what he has accomplished in eight short years,” Riley said. “He has taken the Conservation Department to a completely different level, a level that it’s never been before.”
He said Lawley was not immune from controversy during his time as commissioner.
“I used to tell him, he caused more controversy than all of my cabinet members put together,” Riley said.
He said changes like allowing hunters to hunt with crossbows and the use of decoys during the turkey season are just a couple of controversial issues that surfaced during Lawley’s tenure as commissioner.
But Riley said Lawley took a businessman’s approach to running the department, and he was convincing about the changes he proposed to the Conservation Advisory Board.
“It takes a dedicated professional businessman to run it,” Riley said.
The governor said Lawley would talk about the possible changes in fish and game laws and about the economic impact the changes would have for the state by attracting more people to the outdoors.
“He would make very compelling cases,” Riley said. “And he was exactly right.”
He said Lawley brought open government to the Conservation Department, and the commissioner was constantly in the newspapers and talking on television and radio shows, explaining the issues facing the Conservation Department.
Riley said Lawley’s visibility and level of candidness earned him respect across the state.
He said the two men have been through a lot, including five hurricanes and a major oil spill.
“The older you get, the more you judge people,” Riley said. “If I were in a foxhole or in a firefight, Barnett is the first person I would call.”
Riley was also complimentary of Lawley’s wife, Deanna, and the support she has provided her husband.
“It’s about marrying well,” Riley said. “If it hadn’t been for his wife, I’m not sure if he would have accomplished all of what he did.
“I can say without any reservation, Barnett has done a remarkable job and he is probably one of the best cabinet members who has ever served the State of Alabama.”
Lawley said he was retired at the time of his appointment and plans to return to retirement once he leaves Montgomery in January.
Lawley said he is proud to have served on Gov. Riley’s cabinet and believes he is leaving the Alabama Conservation Department in better shape than he found it, like his predecessor Riley Boykin Smith, who has since become a good friend, did before him.
“We improve it and pass it on,” Lawley said. “That’s what we try to do.”
Officials say state parks are in better shape now than they were eight years ago, and the Gulf State Park fishing pier was rebuilt after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Several recreation trails were established and improved upon during the past eight years, including the establishment of the 631-mile Alabama Scenic River Trail, the longest river trail in any state.
“We feel like we have a path paved when the economy rebounds,” Lawley said. “We want something for everybody because it (the state’s natural resources) belongs to everybody.”
For the past eight years, Lawley said he has never had to say, “I wish I hadn’t done that.”
Lawley said he has met great people and made new friends while helping oversee the state’s $4.4 billion industry that provides more than 65,000 jobs.
Lawley said he has enjoyed his job for the past eight years, but it is time to come home.
While Lawley is a man who never keeps score, he has received high scores by those who have surrounded him while he has served as the conservation department commissioner for the state.
And what advice would he give to the next conservation department commissioner?
“Don’t do anything for political reasons,” Lawley said. “Do it for the natural resources and for the people of the state.”
Contact David Atchison at email@example.com.