Editorial-Opinion January 2018

Steve Burch | January 1, 2018

The Georgia Legislature will again be in session beginning Jan. 8. For the 40 “legislative working days” that will last until the end of March, I don’t expect much to come from this year’s legislative session. There are upcoming elections for members of the House, the Senate and for Governor and Lieutenant Governor. When elections are looming, real action wanes.

Still, what goes on under the Gold Dome in Atlanta can affect us all, positively or negatively. So we will watch it and report on it all for you.

That said, there are a number of things that bear mentioning as the Georgia General Assembly convenes.

Many politicians will be positioning themselves for the elections in November of 2018. Typically, that means they do nothing. For sportsmen, I think it is fair to say that Governor Deal has done a good job for sportsmen, and I also think it is fair to say that the best thing he did was appoint a sportsman to run DNR. Commissioner Mark Williams presided over the growth of DNR law enforcement into its own Division within DNR.

As we look forward a year from now, there will be a new Governor. Often, that new Governor appoints a new DNR Commissioner; that is how Commissioner Williams got the job. But that is not a requirement. Governors can keep successful department leadership in place. If Mark wants to stay on the job, I would hope the new Governor would keep him in place. Currently, the two leading republicans running for Governor are current Lt. Governor Casey Cagle and current Secretary of State Brian Kemp.

The primary issue that we think will have a bearing on this legislative session is a plan to fund land acquisition here in Georgia (see page 14 and the VOTES survey on your cover). There hasn’t been a concerted land acquisition program in Georgia since sportsmen were drafted to fund Governor Zell Miller’s Preservation 2000.

The new plan we are hearing about would ear-mark sales tax paid on certain outdoor-related products, and some of that money would pay for the purchase or protection of land.

So far as it goes, I am generally in favor of keeping wild lands wild. That said, I think the idea that politicians will voluntarily create a pool of tax money they don’t control is a very hard sell amongst themselves. So, I don’t think this effort, at least this session, will get too much traction.

And, I think it is important to realize that simply protecting land is not in itself always a positive thing for sportsmen. Sportsmen should have a voice on which lands are purchased and the future uses on those lands.

Further, the funding to operate these properties (I am thinking either our own Game Management Section or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the federal refuge system) are increasingly disconnected from the funders of such use. The net effect is that those who pay for land protection—we pay because we want to have lands available for hunting and fishing—are typically the last group considered when uses of new lands are prioritized.

A recent and particular example is the reduction by the Trump administration of the size of National Monuments in Utah, already public land just redesignated by Obama in 2016 right before he left office.

The Trump administration is being sued to reverse this action. It is important to understand that those who are suing the administration are of the same ilk as those who want to control decisions on acquiring land in Georgia.

Let me put a little flesh on these bones. Those who oppose the reduction claim that Trump is stealing land from the public. You’re used to partisan spin by now, right? The Trump action only takes back some of those already public lands from National Monument status, a status which gives bureaucrats a window to drastically restrict use. Changes in land designation should be done by Congress—the only loophole is this National Monument action. Imagine if a president decided the Chattahoochee and Oconee National Forests should be National Monuments, and with the stroke of a pen made it so food plots, timber management and road access could be eliminated at the whim of “managers” not of like mind with rational conservationists and sportsmen?

So when groups here ask for help “protecting land for the public,” I ask if they consider sportsmen as the public, or just the cash cow they can tap to use our money to achieve their aims.

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