Preservation 2000 Report Card

The Department of Natural Resources is very close to calling Preservation 2000 a done deal, with almost 100,000 acres 'acquired' to date. Have sportsmen gotten the deal they were promised?

Lindsay Thomas Jr. | September 1, 1995

Larry Nickelson killed this huge buck in 1994 during the first archery hunt at Flint River WMA, which was purchased through the Preservation 2000 land acquisition program, funded primarily by sportsmen through a license-fee increase.

In 1991, Georgia’s hunters and fishermen were told about a new land acquisition program called Preservation 2000, which Governor Zell Miller was personally creating to acquire 100,000 acres of wildlife habitat, parks and natural areas by 1995. Hunters and fishermen were told that they would participate by paying for 30 percent of the land through an increase in their hunting and fishing license fees. They were promised that this would be a bargain compared to past land programs that were funded fully by sportsmen, since 80 to 90 percent of the land acquired under the new program, far more than sportsmen would actually pay for, would be open to hunting and fishing.

It is now 1995 and DNR will soon prepare to make the final deals to reach the 100,000-acre goal—did hunters and fishermen get what they were promised?

The first promise to come true was, of course, the license increase. In April of 1992, the cost of resident hunting, archery, big game and fishing licenses was increased by $1.50 each. Non-resident licenses went up slightly more. That money began to pay off the first of three $20 million general obligation bonds, and DNR began to look for land. In the next two years, the legislature approved funding for two more bonds, bringing the total funds available to $65 million, $5 million more than expected. The Governor had intended to spend $60 million to buy 60,000 acres because he anticipated 40,000 of the total acres (40%) to be donated by the federal government and the private sector. The license fee increase would pay for half of the 60,000 purchased acres (or 30% of the whole 100,000) while the general fund would pay for the other half.

Here is where the program has changed quite a bit from what hunters and fishermen were told in the beginning, From the first year of the license fee increase (and each year since), the revenues from those increases were larger than expected by about $300,000, so a larger portion of the debt retirement on the first bond was paid with hunting and fishing funds, and less was taken from the general fund. In 1993, license funds were still ample, and interest rates were more favorable, so the legislature had to cough up even less to fill the gap in funds that represented their share. When the figures are boiled down today, outdoorsmen are paying for 80% of the purchased land under the program, while the other 20% of the cash is coming from the general fund. This means that of the $65 million in bonds issued by the state to pay for purchases, hunters and fishermen are paying for $52 million of the cost. Essentially, we are buying more than half of all the land acquired under the program when we were originally told we would be paying for 30 percent.

This is not as bad as it sounds. Each individual hunter or fishermen is not paying more. If during the next 20 years, sales of hunting and fishing licenses drops, we will be paying for less than 80 percent of the bonds. If sales increases, we will pay for more. In the end, it is a far better bargaining chip for sportsmen to say that they funded 80 percent of the bonds and the public only 20 percent, because it will be more difficult for the state to remove hunting privileges on Preservation 2000 lands—sportsmen have contributed more than any other group to the program.

A glance down the state’s list of Preservation 2000 properties will show that some impressive and valuable lands have been acquired through the program. Currently, the state lists 94,207 acres that are either confirmed acquisitions or soon-to-be-closed deals. Many of those acres were not purchased, but were donations from the public or private sector, as the original plan called for. So far, $55,790,886 has been spent on purchases, leaving over $12 million to be spent on the last few properties. If all of the deals that the state is currently working on were finalized, most of that money would be spent, and the program would have fallen well above its goal of 100,000 acres.

This sounds great, but a closer look at the list of properties reveals that not all of the acreage that the state is counting toward its goal of 100,000 acres should be included as a Preservation 2000 acquisition.

To begin with, DNR is including in its report of progress three properties, totaling around 1,000 acres, that were purchased with leftover funds from the 1989 Land Acquisition program, the predecessor to Preservation 2000 that bought land specifically for hunting and fishing but with much lower criteria for quality. These lands, additions to Hart County and Paulding Forest WMAs and the West Georgia Field Trail Area, would have been purchased anyway with the 1989 funds, which were earmarked for recreational land purchases. These properties were not included by GON in any of the this article’s charts or the acreage totals that include all of the lands acquired under Preservation 2000.

Also, one of the best pieces of hunting property acquired under the program, Di-Lane Plantation WMA, probably would have become state owned whether Preservation 2000 had existed or not. The 8,044-acre tract was given to the state by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as mitigation for Georgia woodlands and wetlands that were destroyed when the corps built Lake Russell (see chart 2). Should this property be called a Preservation 2000 acquisition?

According to Harvey Young of the DNR Commissioner’s Office, Di-Lane is considered part of the program because the corps could not get federal funding to pay Georgia back for the land they took until Governor Miller got involved and turned up the heat. Georgia’s congressmen helped get the corps’ money, and Georgia got Di-Lane, a deal which would not have come together without the Governor’s personal involvement and interest in the Preservation 2000 program, according to Harvey.

Charts #1 and #2 include all of the Preservation 2000 lands that, like Di-Lane, were donated. Chart #1 lists all of of the lands that were acquired through free leases of Georgia Power Company property alone. Included in this list is Blanton Creek WMA, which Georgia Power has been leasing to the state at no cost since 1984. The 10-year lease on the property was recently up, but Georgia Power renewed the lease for 50 years. The other properties listed in Chart #1 are now under 50-year, no-cost leases, as well. And the total acreage contributed by Georgia Power is 22,864 acres, or 24 percent of the all of the lands being counting toward Preservation 2000 so far. If Georgia Power is leasing these lands to the state at no apparently as a gesture of good will, wouldn’t we be hunting those lands now anyway without something called Preservation 2000?

“I don’t think so,” said Harvey when asked that same question. “I don’t believe the department (DNR) would have approached Georgia Power without the Governor’s commitment to back us up.”

Lands listed on Chart #2 include 2,300 acres of property donated by the Farmer’s Home Administration (FHA). These properties were essentially gifts from the federal government, land accumulated by the FHA from foreclosures that the federal government wanted to get rid of. Harvey conceded that a “departmental level initiative” probably would have acquired these properties without the Governor’s assistance.

The purpose in questioning these and other acquisitions is not to take credit away from Governor Miller or DNR but to make sure the public knows exactly how much Preservation 2000 has accomplished. As mentioned earlier, Governor Miller planned for about 40 percent of the land to come from private donation, which it has, as reflected in Charts #1 and #2. He may have known exactly where most of those donations would be coming from when he came up with “40 percent.”

Chart #3 represents all of the land that was actually purchased under the program with the $65 million in bond funds. Most of the hunting land on this list. as well as hunting lands that were donated, are additions to existing WMAs, while 10 new and complete WMAs have been added under the program so far.

How much of the total acreage is open to hunting? Recall that we have yet to acquire all of the acreage, but including all lands in all three charts, 86 percent, or 72,000 acres, of these lands will be open to some form of hunting in 1995. Access to these lands this year ranges from poor (only a very few hunters will be drawn for a small number of hunts) to excellent (open for the season with no quotas).

Remember the original promise: 80 to 90 percent of the lands would be open to hunting. The Governor admitted early on that some of these lands, as future park lands, would be open to hunting at first, but closed to hunting as park facilities were developed. This will probably be the case at the Chattahoochee River Park in Hall County, which is open to hunting this year. However, here is a direct quote from a Preservation 2000 Fact Sheet: “Even after development, 80 to 90 percent of the land should remain open for hunters and fishermen.”

So far, the original promise about bow much of the land would be open to bunting is coming true, even though access to some of the property is restricted. It will be important to keep an eye on these hunting lands in the future—should privileges on too many of the new areas be removed or restricted, hunters and fishermen should be ready to raise a cry of alarm.

Jerry McCollum of the Georgia Wildlife Federation said that Preservation 2000 will wind up being the most successful land acquisition program ever seen in the state.

“The last program (1989 Land Acquisition) was designed to maximize acres,” Jerry said, “so we got a lot of land that had been ravaged or cut over. Preservation 2000 will wind up being the biggest land acquisition program in the state which bought ‘ready’ lands—DNR won’t have to come up with a long-term management plan so that the property will eventually be worth something.”

Most of the new land is very high quality. Here is a closer look at a handful of the hunting areas that were acquired under the Preservation 2000 program.

Griffin Ridge WMA: Located in Long County, this 5,600-acre property is probably one of the top three or four best pieces of hunting property acquired under Preservation 2000 in terms of both the quality of the land and the amount of hunting being allowed on the property. It was also a smart buy: the state bought the WMA for around $450 an acre. Deer hunting access is good: the property is open for all of archery season with no quota. Four gun-season quota hunts will be held, each with a quota of 100, three of them either-sex hunts, and two of these will be during what should be the peak of the rut in the Coastal Plain, late October and early November.

Charlie Elliott (Clybel): This 6,000-acre property in Jasper County is right in the middle of the Piedmont big-deer counties. Unfortunately, the hunting is limited here, with the best access during bow season. Outside of one parent-child weekend, all of bow season is open with no quota. During gun season, there are four hunts: one of the November hunts is for honorary license holders and the other November hunt is a second parent/child hunt. The other two December firearms hunts have a quota of 100.

Flint River WMA: This 2,500-acre property in quality-managed Dooly County is also one of the “best buys” on the Preservation 2000 list because of its potential to produce big bucks, not to mention the fact that it already produced the state’s biggest bow-killed buck of 1994 in the first season it was open. The property loses points, however, because of very limited access. After being open all of archery season without a quota this year, Flint River will close down for over a month during the beginning of the rut. It reopens on November 30 for the first of two firearms quota hunts that will allow a total of only 150 gun hunters to enjoy the WMA in 1995.

Dukes Creek WMA: Again a “best buy” on the list, this 5,500-acre property in White County was a little more expensive than most of the lands the state purchased: at $11 million the property cost the state about $1,900 an acre, which is high for the Preservation 2000 list but very low considering the quality of the land. The state got a trophy trout stream and some incredible hardwood/pine forests that may produce some big bucks this fall when the trophy-managed property is open for its first season. However, like Flint River WMA, this property loses its glamour in light of its limited access. Archery season includes two quota hunts of 100 hunters each, both in October—all other state management areas allow bowhunting without a quota during archery season. Firearms season includes one hunt in late November with a quota of 100, one parent/child and honorary license hunt with a quota of 50, and one primitive weapons hunt in December with a quota of 100. Even the small-game hunting is by reservation only. Considering the unspoiled state of this property, no one in their right mind would ask that Dukes Creek be left wide open to any number of people, with gravel logging roads leading to every comer of the woods. However, many of the Preservation 2000 lands that will be open to hunting this year seem to fall in the “limited access” category along with this area.

Otting Tract WMA: On this 700-acre tract in Chattooga County, access is terrific if you are a bowhunter. The WMA is archery-only and is open through both bow and firearms season with no quota. This is one of four pieces of Preservation 2000 property that is archery-only in 1995. The Gum Creek tract of Ocmulgee WMA is another one, while two state park areas, Sprewell Bluff and Chattahoochee River Park, will be archery-only as well. A total of around 3,500 acres of Preservation 2000 property will be archery-only this year.

Wilson Shoals WMA: If cost and access were the only criteria forjudging Preservation 2000 hunting-land acquisitions, this property would rank near the top. The state bought all 2,727 acres of this Banks County property for around $675 an acre. As for access, the property is open during both archery season and firearms season in the Northern Zone without a quota and without a check-in as well. The property is close to Gainesville, and it is probably a good example of why too much access can be as bad as too little access. The area sees heavy use due to Its proximity to Gainesville, and since deer populations on the property are moderate, hunter success is average.

Di-Lane WMA: This 8,000-acre Burke County property is also one of the showpieces of the Preservation 2000 program, even though we probably would have gotten it anyway. Again, this property did not cost the state one dime since the corps owed us the acres as mitigation land. Di-Lane is an excellent piece of land for quail hunters—the quail population is decent and there are quota quail hunts held throughout the season. It is also good deer-hunting land, and the access is just about right: not too little but not too much. The property is open to bowhunters without a quota for most of archery season. During firearms season, there will be one quality buck-only hunt in late November without a quota. Otherwise there are two four-day hunts for quality bucks or does, and each is open to 400 hunters.

So far, Zell has followed through with his plan to give us 80 to 90 percent of the land for hunting, even though we wound up paying a lot more than we expected to pay for it. But that may give us a greater voice in deciding how these lands are managed. Overall, access to the 72,000 acres of new hunting land is average; it would be hard to ask for more, but we better not get any less. You can expect GON to keep you informed on the status of these lands, as well as bring you up to date on the last few acquisitions.

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