11 Eagle Award winners honored for contributions to Alabama State Parks

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Left to right are Chad Jones, president of McClellan Chapter Member of the Back Country Horsemen of Alabama; Steve Lathem, president of Wind Creek Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of Alabama; Jaime Ruff, president of West Alabama Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of Alabama; Mike Bagwell, chairman of the Back Country Horsemen of Alabama; Heather Jones, president of Central Chapter the Back Country Horsemen of Alabama; Pam Horton, president of Warrior Mountain Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of Alabama; Rep. Wes Kitchens; Tamika Eatmon, of AmeriCorps NCCC; Sen. Steve Livingston; Verna Gates; Barbara Greenlee; Toni Bruner; Curt Cearley; State Parks Director Greg Lein, kneeling with dog; Mitch Emmons; and Dianne and Mason Johnson.

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. – Winners of the seventh annual Eagle Awards were honored Saturday as part of Eagle Awareness Weekend at Lake Guntersville State Park. 

The Eagle Award – sponsored by the Alabama State Parks Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources – is presented annually to people and organizations who have made outstanding contributions in support of Alabama State Parks. For 2022, 11 winners were selected from nominations submitted. 

This year’s Eagle Award winners are: 

  • Curt Cearley (Community Partner) 
  • Toni Bruner (Community Partner) 
  • AmeriCorps NCCC (Park Partner) 
  • Fresh Air Family (Park Partner) 
  • Chewacla Invasive Plant Working Group (Park Partner) 
  • Back Country Horsemen of Alabama (Park Partner) 
  • Dianne & Mason Johnson (Volunteer in the Parks) 
  • Barbara Greenlee (Volunteer in the Parks) 
  • Mitch Emmons (Volunteer in the Parks) 
  • Sen. Steve Livingston (Elected Official) 
  • Rep. Wes Kitchens (Elected Official) 

“Millions of people visit Alabama State Parks every year, and that’s a testament to the commitment and dedication shown by volunteers, community partners, elected officials and organizations,” said Chris Blankenship, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “The annual Eagle Awards allow us to show our appreciation for all of the amazing work the winners do to enhance outdoor recreation and help our parks provide the very best experience possible. We truly thank them for all of their hard work.  

Here’s a closer look at each winner: 

Curt Cearley (Community Partner) 

As founder and executive director of the Rise Raptor Project, he leads an educational nonprofit that conducts 50-to-80 programs annually to educate groups about raptors and inspire the public to embrace principles of good stewardship and scientific discovery. He is a regular contributor to the Eagle Awareness programs at Lake Guntersville State Park and conducts similar programs at other Alabama State Parks, including Joe Wheeler and Monte Sano. 

Toni Bruner (Community Partner) 

Bruner serves as executive director of Legacy, an organization dedicated to providing science-based, environmental information and education and promoting environmental stewardship. She conducts teacher workshops for Alabama State Park naturalists across the state, and her “Mountains to the Gulf Workshop” educates and informs about Alabama’s natural resources and unmatched biodiversity. 

AmeriCorps NCCC (Park Partner) 

Tamika Eaton organized a team of nine people, ranging in age from 18 to 22, who helped create the “Base to Summit” trail at Cheaha State Park. This new trail features an elevation change of more than 1,000 feet, stretches for a mile and leads to Alabama’s highest point. It will be hiked and appreciated by park guests for years to come. The mission of AmeriCorps NCCC is to strengthen communities and develop leaders through direct, team-based community service. 

Fresh Air Family (Park Partner) 

An outdoor-based education nonprofit organization led by Verna Gates and founded in 2006, the organization is dedicated to improving science literacy and scientific thinking for children and youth. Fresh Air Family is a valued partner to Alabama State Parks by hosting hikes and events at our parks, and it adds to the positive experiences for guests through educational programs such as Wild About Service Camp, Not Scared Camp and Gross Out Camp. 

Chewacla Invasive Plant Working Group (Park Partner) 

A volunteer group led by Gary Wagoner, the organization works to improve and protect Chewacla State Park’s ecological health by removing and controlling invasive plants and restoring the native plant ecosystem. In 2021, CIPWG initiated several meetings and planning sessions to create workdays at Chewacla State Park. These events used local volunteers to take on the tedious task of removing invasive plant species. 

Back Country Horsemen of Alabama (Park Partner) 

As the state chapter of Back Country Horsemen of America, a national nonprofit organization, the group builds and maintains horse trails at Oak Mountain, Wind Creek, Lake Guntersville and Paul Grist state parks. The organization’s volunteers have also built campsite amenities and barns at several parks, which helps fulfill its mission of keeping trails open for all users of public lands.  

Dianne & Mason Johnson (Volunteer in the Parks) 

Beginning in January 2022, the Johnsons volunteered at Cathedral Caverns State Park and helped get construction of the campground expansion off to a great start by developing after-hours check-in policies and procedures. They also performed maintenance work at the campground and provided excellent customer service to park guests. 

Barbara Greenlee (Volunteer in the Parks) 

A volunteer at the front desk at Wind Creek State Park, Greenlee is always first to answer the phone, help visitors and make sure every guest has a spectacular experience. She’s known for going above and beyond and making the work environment enjoyable and fun. 

Mitch Emmons (Volunteer in the Parks) 

Emmons served as a volunteer at Cheaha State Park in October 2022 in the Lower Improved Campground. He also contributed his phenomenal photography skills during an important time to alert visitors to the level of the leaves changing. Park officials noted the campground was immaculate during his stay and he created and maintained a bathroom log to document dates and times of cleanings. 

Sen. Steve Livingston (Elected Official) 

Livingston has three parks in his district: DeSoto, Monte Sano and Buck’s Pocket. He has been very supportive of recent efforts to renovate DeSoto Falls, where upgrades to restrooms, improvements to the parking area, and the addition of a new beach and kayak launch were made. He also supported efforts to purchase 149 acres of land being sold at auction that adjoins the park’s DeSoto Falls property. Sen. Livingston also championed the re-opening and renovation of Buck’s Pocket State Park’s campground along South Sauty Creek, which was funded from a grant from ADECA. 

Rep. Wes Kitchens (Elected Official) 

Kitchens has three parks in his district: Cathedral Caverns, Buck’s Pocket and Lake Guntersville. He has been very supportive of recent efforts to build a new campground at Cathedral Caverns State Park through a grant from ADECA and the ARC, as well as the project to pave the roads leading to the beautiful lodge at Lake Guntersville State Park with a special recycled tire asphalt product funded under a grant from ADEM. Kitchens also worked with Sen. Livingston on the Buck’s Pocket campground project. 

Both legislators were tireless leaders in the recent passage of the constitutional amendment to secure $85 million to fund new improvement projects in state parks, and both serve on the Joint Legislative Committee for State Parks. 

“Our slogan is ‘Partners Pay the Way,’ and we could not thrive without the contributions of the Eagle Award winners,” said Greg Lein, director of the Alabama State Parks Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “They truly are partners in every way possible. Thanks to their efforts, our State Parks offer expanded programs and better amenities to our park guests. We’re honored that they choose to work to make our parks better than ever.” 

About Alabama’s State Parks System 

The Alabama State Parks is a division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and maintains 21 state parks encompassing more than 50,000 acres of land and water in Alabama. The parks range from Gulf Coast beaches to Appalachian Mountains and provide opportunities and facilities from basic day-use activities to resort convention lodging, restaurants and golfing areas. These parks rely on visitor fees and the support of other partners like local communities to fund the majority of their operations. Learn more at www.alapark.com. Partners Pay the Way.