Cheaha’s Bigfoot Biobash festival hopes to preserve state’s resources
November 18, 2017
By Zach Tyler
The Anniston Star

The nine-foot, eight-inch wooden statue looms inside a glass enclosure at Cheaha State Park, not far from Bunker Tower and the highest point in Alabama.

Shaped with a chainsaw by a Montgomery-based artist, the carven creature’s sunken eyes look a little forlorn. He holds a sign: “Leave no trace,” it reads. “Bigfoot’s done it for years.”

“He’s a good character for us to learn by,” Rob Pinkston said Saturday, looking at the statue. “We leave too many impacts on nature. He’s just kind of a blur.”

Earlier that morning, Pinkston dressed as the folkloric sasquatch for the state park’s annual Bigfoot Biobash Conservation Festival, meant by organizers to teach visitors how to enjoy public lands responsibly.

The festival started with a 5K trail run, where participants could learn along the route about the “outdoor ethics” promoted by Leave No Trace, a national nonprofit Pinkston is affiliated with. Those principles encourage people to lessen their impact on wild areas when hiking or camping — conservation on an individual scale.

That’s important, Pinkston said, “so that future generations have a place to visit, like this beautiful park at Cheaha.” He paid for the giant statue now displayed at the state’s tallest peak, he said, because Cheaha is his favorite park in Alabama.

Leaving no trace is not a hard sell at such parks, Pinkston said, where most people he meets are already conservation-minded. The difficulty, he said, lies in reaching residents beyond the state parks who might not know such natural wonders exist.

Generally, advocates said this week, educating folks about the need to protect the environment in a region where the word “environmentalism” might conjure images of government regulation and overreach is all in how you talk.

That word — environmentalism — “has been used as a political football,” said Cindy Lowry, executive director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, “and used to drive a wedge between people.”

Despite blustery wind, the festival drew more than 50 people to the state park peak, many of them participants in the run. Others came for a chance to see Bigfoot — Pinkston and three others wore special creature suits and posed for pictures with visitors.

“Conservation is a big thing for us,” Sherron Woodall, who drove from Moulton for the festival, said Saturday morning after posing with Pinkston.

Woodall described herself and her family as “country people.” Her husband and most of the other men in their family like to hunt, so making sure they have the land to do so is important to them, Woodall said.

“It’s more important for each person to try and make a difference, rather than trying to depend on the government,” Woodall said of protecting the environment. She tries to recycle aluminum cans, for example, and use less water.

“I feel more in control of that than large political things,” Woodall said. “But I also believe that the government should take bigger steps to conserve more.”

Any perceived divide between environmentalists and conservationists, Starr Weems said Saturday, is likely thanks to politics. The Ardmore High School teacher came from Athens to camp at Cheaha and see the festival with her 10-year-old son, Rio.

“Politics have been so toxic for the last decade or so, nobody is willing to get on the same page,” said Weems, who teaches a naturalist program at her high school. “But everyone can agree that we have awesome natural resources that need protection.”

Talking about the need for that protection can be a tall order, though, said Lowry, of the Rivers Alliance. It’s a balancing act — farmers and industry interests often favor more access to natural resources and fewer regulations, while advocacy groups like hers push for tighter limits on pollution.

“Environmental issues are very complex,” she said. “How do we balance the needs of industry and the environment, the use of water and other natural resources to run our economies, while also sustaining and protecting those resources for the future?”

Locally, though, farmers’ and foresters’ goals often align with folks who might consider themselves environmentalists, said Renee Raney, who is supervisor of events at the state park.

It’s through events like the Biobash that people who fall on either side of what she called an “imaginary bias” can come together and learn something.

“We all have the same goals,” Raney said, “and the same desires to see Alabama’s natural resources protected, and enjoyed.”