Chambers County Commissioner James “Moto” Williams reflects on his time with the Alabama Forestry Commission

Published 9:59 am Wednesday, May 22, 2019

VALLEY — James “Moto” Williams is perhaps the best-known forestry professional in Chambers County. He will mark 30 years with the Alabama Forestry Commission on July 1. He’s assigned to Chambers County, but it’s a job that can take him all across the United States. He talked about his experiences at Monday evening’s meeting of the Valley Lions Club.

“We help private landowners manage their trees, but our number one job is to protect trees,” he said. “If your trees are dying, we can tell you what’s killing them and if they can be saved.”

Williams is one of three people employed by the AFC who are from Chambers County. “We will charge landowners if we do prescribed burning for them or if we make them some fire lanes. Everything else is done at no charge.”

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Aerial photography is something new for the Forestry Commission. “We’ve just started taking photos from drones,” he said. “This gives us the capability of showing you aerial views off your property.”

The Forestry Commission is involved in local schools.

“We want to educate the kids about being supportive of forests,” Williams said.

Organizations such as the Forestry Commission have played a role in the U.S. having very healthy forest lands.

“We are growing more trees today in the United States than any time in our history,” Williams said. “There are more trees now in this part of the country than there were when DeSoto came through.”

That’s a statement that surprises a lot of people, but Williams says it’s backed up by the facts.

“The Native Americans did more controlled burning than we ever thought about,” he said.

The Creeks in particular burned off forest land for open fields they could grow crops on. There was more cleared land in 1540, especially along creek and river bottoms, than there is now. Many of these same lands today are dense with timber.

Members of the AFC are called to duty whenever there’s a natural disaster.

“I’ve been part of firefighting on the west coast,” he said. “We are first responders on the state level when there’s damage caused by tornadoes or hurricanes. We clear roads of fallen trees with chainsaws.”

Williams was among the many ATC employees from around the state who were sent to Lee County after the devastating tornado of March 3. Two days after the tornado came through, Williams was dispatched to the Smiths Station area to help manage the clean up.

“The state EMA office in Clanton sent us out,” he said. “We had over 400 volunteers coming in. Our job was to organize them and send them to areas where they were needed.”

Before they could go in, landowners had to sign waivers permitting them to be on their property and clean up storm damage. More than 1,000 people came through our volunteer center on the Saturday after the tornado. They were willing to work; we just had to send them to the right places.”

That dark cloud of March 3 did have a silver lining. That disaster dominated the news for several days and because of that plenty of help poured in.

“It was the biggest news story in the country that first week,” he said. “Al Roker from of the Today show was there. People from all over the U.S. were calling asking if they could help,” Williams said. “We had to turn some people away.”

Williams said the response in Beauregard was very different from what happened in Jacksonville in 2018.

“Jacksonville was hit last year, but no one was killed,” he said. “It happened during spring break, so the college students weren’t in town for the most part.”

It was similar in west Alabama in 2011. The city of Tuscaloosa got the lion’s share of attention, but the damage and loss of life was widespread. In what’s now called the 2011 Super Outbreak, over 360 tornadoes touched down in the Eastern U.S. with a total of 324 people being killed, 238 in Alabama.

“The damaged wasn’t just in Tuscaloosa,” Williams said. “We also had some storm damage here in east Alabama.”

There were 14 forestry people in Lee County helping organize the March cleanup.

“Some people did work we didn’t know about until after the fact,” Williams said. “The volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse are top notch. They stayed with people until they were comfortable being on their own. They had NASCAR-style haulers filled with the equipment they needed. You’d be surprised at what came in down there. There were donations we didn’t know what to do with.”

“I hope nothing like that ever happens in Chambers County,” Williams said, “but if it ever does you can rest assured we will get immediate help.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a commodity center at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery. In the event of a natural disaster, trucks will be ready to go out within the hour to get bottled water and other immediate supplies to the disaster zone.