LDWF to pay $2 million for property already owned by state after last-minute budget deal

Legislature reinstates transfer of constitutionally protected money as 2013 session closes

With only one opposing vote out of 144, the Legislature decided, during the final hours of its regular session’s last day, that the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries should pay $2 million for various properties already owned by the state to expand existing wildlife management areas and refuges, among other purposes.

According to the department’s legal counsel, it’s the first time in recent memory that the department has had to pay the executive branch, of which it is a part, for such properties. In the past, land for WMAs and refuges have been donated to the department — and the Legislature routinely approves transfers to and from the state with no costs associated, as it did this year in a few instances.

Before the session adjourned June 6, the House, which had first crack at House Bill 452 by Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, removed the provision from the bill. Many lawmakers, chief among them the conservative faction of the so-called Fiscal Hawks, questioned Gov. Bobby Jindal’s budget priorities, particularly budget contingencies that relied on land deals they claimed were uncertain.

While the land transfer involving LDWF was more of a certainty than others, it was still swept up in the initiatives removed by the House. When the Senate received the legislation — known as the funds bill, since it takes money out of dedicated funds to help balance the general appropriations bill, basically the state budget — it did not put the land deal back in, despite appeals by the administration.

It wasn’t until the House and Senate had to hammer out a compromise on the bill on the last day of the session that the land transfer resurfaced.

Click here to read an editorial on Gov. Bobby Jindal’s history of taking money out of wildlife and fisheries conservation.

The question is whether the administration has found a new way to get money out of the constitutionally-protected Conservation Fund, which underwrites the department’s efforts.

Plus, it’s fair to question whether the public will receive $2 million worth of value from the lands: One of the plots being purchased adds roughly one acre to an existing WMA, while another plot is being incorporated into a refuge overseen by the federal government.

The transfer involves 31 parcels of land totaling slightly more than 3,080 acres, including properties in the following parishes:

• St. Tammany — 40.24 acres for the St Tammany Refuge

• Ascension — 1.2 acres for the Maurepas Swamp WMA

• Pointe Coupee — 723 acres for a standalone lot

•  Tangipahoa — 75.25 acres for the Joyce WMA

• West Feliciana — 314 acres for the Richard Yancey WMA

• West Feliciana — 28.8 acres for the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge

• St Charles — 39.52 acres for the Salvador WMA

• Grant — 34.8 acres for a standalone lot

• Grant  two parcels totaling 59.12 acres for the Little River WMA

• Rapides — two acres for the Dewey Wills WMA

• Bienville — 11 parcels totaling 176.52 acres for the Loggy Bayou WMA

• Franklin — seven parcels totaling 1,586.15 acres for a standalone lot

Bo Boehringer, LDWF press secretary, said the standalone lots include some land that will be used in concert with existing Louisiana black bear recovery areas, which will help the state achieve an important classification for recovery requirements to remove the bear from the federal threatened species list.

Even though it helps the administration balance its budget, LDWF Secretary Robert Barham said the deal helps his department, as well.

“We are always looking for the opportunity to add acreage to our wildlife management area program which provides public outdoor recreation opportunities that include hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, bird watching and nature photography,” Barham said. “To that end, we have been working with the Office of State Lands to identify properties that could be incorporated as WMA properties, and will continue to do so.”

In an earlier interview, Michael DiResto, the Division of Administration’s assistant commissioner of policy and communications, said the state acquired the parcels at little or no cost. When asked to identify similar land deals dating back farther, the division of administration was unable to immediately provide that information.

“But they still have a cumulative value of $2 million,” he said.

The state routinely transfers property to governmental entities at no cost. For instance, during the recently adjourned regular session, four bills were introduced to transfer land from the state to the cities of Pineville and Ruston, as well as Lafourche, Orleans and St. Martin parishes. In Lafourche, the land will be used for a public boat launch and the related construction is already being bid out.

Also, in one of the bills already signed by the governor and enacted, the LDWF is authorized to transfer land it is currently holding in Ouachita, Vernon and Richland parishes to the Department of Transportation and Development — with no mention of a payment to the conservation agency.

DiResto said during the session that the administration is “simply using diligence in managing state resources, using vacant land parcels owned by the Office of State Lands that are adjacent to wildlife management areas or refuges and incorporating them into Wildlife and Fisheries’ management areas to provide recreational opportunities.”

How much anglers and others would actually use those lands is another matter. According to information and documents released by the division, the properties include former lakes that are now dry beds, lands that reverted from federal to state ownership and one tract that is a batture or elevated riverbed.

Regardless, Barham added that the department stands ready to act.

“Once the funding bill is signed and the transaction completed, we will begin to manage the state lands that will be transferred to the department,” he said.

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