Sound Alarm For Endangered WMAs

In the near future, the ultimate hunt could be the hunt for public land.

Daryl Kirby | October 5, 2006

Like a pair of locomotives on a collision course, two disturbing trends in 2006 are picking up steam and plowing toward each other, and hunters are standing in the middle. If the trends continue, we are about to get squashed.

At issue is hunting access. At stake is not only the incredibly rewarding recreation of hunting, but the entire conservation model of this country. If hunters don’t have a place to hunt, they’ll find other ways to spend their weekends in the fall, and the woods and wildlife will lose their greatest protectors. And if hunters don’t buy licenses, the entire funding mechanism that brought wildlife back and sustains wildlife-management practices will break down.

Something can be done to slow or even reverse the trends, but every day that passes without action brings us closer to a train wreck.

On one side of the tracks is the rapid loss of hunting access on the larger tracts of private timber and farm land. An alarming number of hunting clubs that have leased the same tracts for years from timber companies and large landowners are finding themselves out in the cold as the land is sold, cut up into smaller tracts, and sold to developers and land speculators. For some of those who lose their private leases and hunting clubs, the only option may be public land.

But from the other side, also bearing down on the future of hunting, is the increasing loss of our public-hunting opportunities on those Wildlife Management Areas that are leased by the state.

“There are several factors going on,” said Todd Holbrook, WRD chief of Game Management. “As Georgia grows, landowners see ways they can generate a lot more revenue than they can with timber and hunting and uses like that. It’s just like if you were to go into the Delta of the Mississippi River, you’re not going to grow timber on land that can generate twice as much money growing cotton. You’re not going to grow cotton on land that can generate twice as much money growing shopping malls.”

Maybe we were lulled into a sense of security that our hunting leases and WMAs would always be there. The decade of the 90s saw an increase of WMA land — thanks to sportsmen who footed the bills for two land-acquisition programs. Those programs, funded almost entirely by two license-fees increases, bought more than 150,000 acres of land for the state.

Unfortunately, since then, no other group has stepped forward and offered to open their wallets to fund another land-acquisition program. A huge missed opportunity came during the last election when voters rejected a proposal to raise the real-estate transfer tax, which would have generated millions of dollars a year for a land-acquisition program. Florida has a similar program.

Carroll Allen, WRD assistant chief of Game Management, said the rapid change in land-use patterns in Georgia is a concern, and that fee-simple purchase is the best option to protect land, but also the most difficult to accomplish.

“For us, with the political climate and economic times right now, I don’t see how you could get enough money to buy what you need,” Carroll said. “That’s why that real-estate transfer tax made so much sense, because these are the people, the developers and speculators, that are gobbling up the land.”

Currently in Georgia, the real estate agents transfer tax is $1 on $1,000 of value. A tract that sells for $100,000 is assessed a real-estate transfer tax of $100, which is usually paid by the buyer, and the money goes into the general tax coffers. The proposal was to raise the real-estate transfer tax to $10 per $1,000, and use the additional funds exclusively for land acquisition.

“With the real-estate transfer tax idea, when you sell property or houses, you use that money to go buy land that you can preserve for future generations. That is how Florida funds their land program,” Carroll said. “Florida is by far the leader of the pack when it comes to preserving land with their program. Florida generates about $300 million a year, and it has bought thousands upon thousands of acres that are going to be preserved.”

Georgia voters have already rejected the idea of funding land acquisition through an increase in the real-estate transfer tax. Buying land is going to cost money. Someone is going to have to take a hit. Hunters have done it twice in the past 20 years, who steps up to the plate now?

“It is something that our citizens are going to have to face,” Carroll said. “At least we’re moving in the right direction with the advisory council started by the Governor.”

Carroll is referring to the Land Conservation Partnership Advisory Council, which was created by Gov. Perdue in December.

Paul Michael of the DNR Real Estate Office is a member of the council, and he said many ideas are being discussed, with the common goal to come up with a strategic plan for the state to conserve some land.

“This plan has three primary focuses: the first is on state acquisition of large, strategic parcels of land; then we’re looking at an expanding community greenspace program; and the third component is encouragement of private conservation initiatives,” Paul said.
“The council is developing a report of recommendations and a strategic plan that will be presented to the Governor in August. This plan will lay the foundation for a more comprehensive, statewide focus on land conservation,” Paul said.

While all three of the primary focuses are important, the one that could slow the public-hunting train wreck is state acquisition of land. Again, a permanent source of funding is going to be the key, and it is also going to be the sticking point.

“The council has discussed the issue of funding. Without having funding in place, the plan doesn’t do a whole lot of good. The plan can’t be implemented without funding attached to it. The council has considered and researched many different funding mechanisms that are used around the country and has narrowed that list down to a handful of opportunities that are applicable to Georgia.”

According to Paul, first on that list is going back and trying again to increase the real-estate transfer tax. Also being considered is re-allocation of the sales tax. The third possibility is having the legislature and Governor agree to pay for the programs out of the general funds each year.

“We even looked briefly at the gas tax, but we decided that it would not be an appropriate time to talk about that,” Paul said.

In all of these possibilities, someone is going to have to pay.

“When it comes to funding mechanisms, we don’t know if specific recommendations will make it into the final report, or if it will be more of a listing of potential funding opportunities,” Paul said.

If another five years go by without any action, what will the WMA system look like in Georgia? In just the past five years, the acreage leased by the state for WMAs has shrunk by almost 10 percent. A total of 22,000 acres of land leased for WMAs in 1999 will not be available to hunters during the 2004-2005 hunting season. It’s gone forever. Those lands, representing the favorite hunting spots for untold Georgians, will never be returned to the WMA system.

More disturbing is what our WMA system might look like next year. At least four large WMAs that have for years been leased to the state are in danger of being lost. Ogeechee is almost gone, and what little is left for public hunting will likely soon follow. Ocmulgee and Oaky Woods, longtime timber-company holdings, are being sold, and their future as WMAs are bleak. Coosawattee WMA has already been sold by a timber company to a development company, and those beautiful woods surrounding Carters Lake are destined for high-priced homes. Those four WMAs alone represent about 58,000 acres of public-hunting land that, barring a miracle, will be lost. And those are not the only WMAs that are endangered.

This year Allatoona WMA will be 3,000 acres smaller as another tract that used to be timber-company land was lost to developers. Allatoona is a thin shell of what it used to be, now relegated to about 8,458 acres of oddly-shaped bands of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land around the lake. Much of that land is or soon will be bordered by neighborhoods. Also feeling the crush of encroaching suburbia are Paulding County and Dawson Forest WMAs.

In addition to our endangered WMAs, on the threatened list is every single acre of WMA land that is leased by the state, which as we have seen in the past five years is a temporary arrangement at best.

“It’s the reality. All leases are tenuous,” Todd said. “That’s one of the reasons you want to own land.”

This season the state will lease about 207,000 acres of land for WMAs. Very soon about 27 percent of that total is going to be gone when Ogeechee, Oaky Woods, Ocmulgee, and Coosawattee are lost. Can we save the remaining 150,000 acres? Here’s a scary thought — one timber company alone owns 71,000 of those remaining acres… almost half. What happens if that timber company follows suit and sells like its competitors have done in Georgia?

“Normally when you think of something like International Paper, Weyerhaueser, big timber companies like that, you think of leases that you don’t have to worry about. That’s not the case anymore,” Carroll said.

According to Todd, “It’s simple economics. Private industry is going to make money. I think you’re seeing that, like with St. Joe Paper Co. for example, became a land-development company. These companies are looking at all the different possibilities of revenue generation.

“There are long-term ramifications. Resource availability ultimately determines resource use. This is part of the equation that drives hunter numbers. It becomes too expensive to get a lease for a man and his grandkid to hunt. They hunt public land, but we’re losing that too, and the grandkid’s hunting experiences are a little more mixed in with the crowd, maybe not as high quality. They just give it up. We’ve lost a hunter on both sides of the equation.”

Hunters have to get into the fight, but this time not by opening our wallets and standing alone.

Sportsmen must insist that the state come up with a way to buy and protect land. We must also make sure that when the state buys land, hunting access on those new tracts is an important of an ideal — and is protected as vehemently — as the ideals of greenspace, water quality, and environmentally-sensitive areas — buzzwords we’ll hear a lot of out of the Governor’s new council.

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