Chris Erwin AWF

Presenting the awards were PowerSouth Energy’s Horace Horn, conservation commissioner Chris Blankenship, AWF president Grant Lynch and Alabama Power Company’s Susan Comensky. Chris Erwin is pictured center.

Wetumpka native Chris Erwin has taken his love for nature and people all over North America.

Erwin joined the Air Force after graduating from Eufaula High School, following a life of fishing, hunting and catching crawdads in the river.

While in the Air Force, he was stationed in Alaska where he got the opportunity to experience some of the best nature has to offer.

Add in a few conferences in Canada and, although he hasn’t gotten much of an opportunity to explore nature north of the border, Erwin’s work over the years led him to receive some due recognition.

After 20 years in service of forestry and helping private landowners preserve and protect their livelihood, Erwin received the 2019 Forest Conservationist of the Year Award at the annual Alabama Wildlife Federation Governor’s Conservation Achievement Awards last month.

“I found out about two months ago,” Erwin said. “It’s very humbling. I really appreciate the Alabama Wildlife Federation, which is a very important partner in what we do. Their biologists help us do survey work and do a really great job.”

Erwin said his job as director of Southern forest conservation for the American Forest Foundation is about more than preserving land.

Erwin primarily works with private landowners to help protect their resources, understanding what type of resources they have, improve forest management and maintain interest in their property. Erwin also assists in the restoration of native habitats.

“We all benefit from all of the little critters in the forest,” Erwin said. “We do everything we can to help our owners maintain their wildlife and their timber. Landowners just think a lot differently about their resources than someone just enjoying them.”

Erwin’s work with the American Forest Foundation has led to several new initiatives benefitting forests and forest landowners.

Erwin fostered a partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation with a $1 million investment in longleaf and shortleaf pine restoration and conservation of aquatic resources through strategic forest management.

He also helped begin partnerships with the Alabama Forestry Association and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to facilitate improved forest management and certification on private forestlands.

Erwin has also helped private landowners tap into technology by creating the “Woodscamp” digital media platform, designed to expand forest and wildlife management communication outreach.

“Most people are into forestry because they like being outside,” Erwin said. “For me, it’s about building lasting relationships. I’ve learned that the people who own their land are very passionate about it. It’s their livelihood.”

Erwin told the stories of people who have kept the family tradition of owning forestland, including a third-generation farmer who wants to leave his land with future generations.

He’s found over the years the theft of resources by landowners is very rare and continued sustainability is most important to them.

“(The farmer) got it from his parents, who got the land from their parents,” Erwin said. “He’s thinking about his legacy and he’s very proud of his land. For these landowners, it’s the most precious thing they own. The people have been there and want their kids to be there, so they want to do things the right way.”

Erwin’s next major project will be in conjunction with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

In the spring of 2020, Erwin and his team will begin survey work of forestland to help determine whether gopher tortoises should be considered an endangered species.

The collection of data, Erwin said, will be difficult but he hopes to help in the decision-making process.

“We’ll have contractors out in the field doing the surveying,” Erwin said. “About 75% of the land is privately owned. Most landowners don’t want to tell what resources they have and that’s because they want to protect themselves and their investment. We hope they understand the benefit of this survey.”