Bill to limit Wildlife Department lands passes senate committee

Six-month wait required before pursuing any purchase

By KELLY BOSTIAN
For the CCOF

Dubbed a compromise by its author, a bill that would force the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation to wait six months to buy any lands on the open market was approved Monday by the Senate Agriculture and Wildlife Committee.

Sen. Casey Murdock, R-Felt presented substitute language for Senate Bill 776 saying it was a compromise that “left both sides unhappy.”

The original bill restricted the department from any net gain in public lands acreage statewide and allowed purchase only of lands already contiguous with existing department-owned wildlife areas.

The substitute legislation removes the no-net-gain and contiguous-only limits and instead limits the department to only purchasing lands that have been on the market at fair market value for at least six months. It does allow in-holdings surrounded on all sides by department lands to be purchased as soon as they are available, however.

Murdock said the bill also will be amended to allow landowners to gift their lands to the department, such as through a will or trust, but any sales still would be subject to the six-month wait.

It would not restrict the department from leasing lands for public hunting areas or restrict landowner from enrolling in the Oklahoma Lands Access Program for hunting, fishing and other uses.

As an amendment to Title 29 statutes, the restriction applies only to the Wildlife Department as directed by the Wildlife Conservation Commission. The bill does not restrict purchases by other state municipal or federal entities.

“But when you strike a deal and both parties are unhappy you have about the fairest deal you can get.”

Sen. CASEY MURDOCK

Murdock said the latest compromise is yet another offering in the three years he has pushed for some version of this legislation.

His motivation is that he is “an (agriculture) guy and parent of a child who would like to get into agriculture. They’re not making land anymore. It’s hard to find,” he said. “I don’t believe the state and federal governments should be in the business of owning land and be in direct competition with an industry such as ag.”

The new version of the bill makes both sides unhappy, he said. 

“People from ag, from the Cattlemen’s Association and Farm Bureau that support this bill, some of them didn’t like it that I’m giving in on this,” he said. “But when you strike a deal and both parties are unhappy you have about the fairest deal you can get.”

Wildlife Department Director JD Strong agreed that the department is not happy but said the six-month hurdle is not as hard to manage as what was originally proposed.

He said it is a misnomer that the department takes productive agriculture lands out of production.

“We don’t buy big wheat pastures,” he said. “We look for the scruffy margins that are not actively farmed because they often present the best opportunities to manage wildlife habitat. If we do have land with ag parcels in it we lease that out to farmers or ranchers.”

Another mistaken impression is that the Department does not pay ad valorem taxes on land purchases, he said. Since the mid-1980s the department pays “taxes in lieu” that are assessed by the counties, he said.

“If there is a property that looks good it certainly opens it up for anyone to swoop in and take it from us.”

JD STRONG, ODWC

Article XXVI of the Oklahoma State Constitution directs the Wildlife Commission to purchase lands as needed for “control, management, restoration, conservation and regulation of the bird, fish, game and wildlife resources of the state.”

Strong said the bill only limits the department’s purchasing process so he was unsure if it is unconstitutional.

“If there is a property that looks good it certainly opens it up for anyone to swoop in and take it from us,” he said.

With its eye on “the scruffy edges” rather than broad agricultural lands the provision likely gives more of an edge to people looking for recreation properties or combination properties with some grazing or farming.

The market for that land is very good and has been for several years, according to Tulsa area realtor Stacy Callahan, who works with rural agriculture and recreational properties.

With depressed prices and other challenges facing agricultural operations in recent years the most active purchasing for agriculture has been by only the largest operations, he said.

“But the recreational buyers, they’re always around,” he said.

Good recreational properties that are listed at fair market value usually don’t last long on the market but many variables can come into play with any given property. Properties that are over-priced or present some other challenges typically remain on the market longer, he said.

Strong said the most recent purchases approved by the Wildlife Commission, for the Sandhills Wildlife Management Area in Woods County and the San Bois WMA in Haskell County, were indeed on the market longer than six months.

“As a practical matter we can make it work better than what was introduced at the beginning, where we were totally stuck with no more acreage,” he said.

Murdock told a brief story from his 10 years managing the Clayton Livestock Research Center with New Mexico State University to relate his feelings that governments should not hold the deeds to lands.

He said a 100,000-acre historic ranch where the Center researched cattle grazing and management that was purchased by the federal government and put into a public trust under direction of a board rather than being managed by a Department of Interior agency.

With a change of administration the citizen board makeup became more strongly environmental, anti-grazing and against active lands management and decided the property would no longer be run as a working cattle ranch.

“I think the Wildlife Department does a pretty good job, but I can’t see 20 years down the road or 30 years down the road,” he said. “I can tell you a year ago I would have never imagined that everybody in the world would be wearing facemasks and mandated to wear face masks… but I do think if deeds are held in the hands of  a private citizen’s hands that is protection for the private citizens.”

A representative in Murdock’s office said he would be busy Monday. A message was left but the call was not returned.

Manny Encinias, a former co-worker at the Center with Murdock who now teaches Animal Science at Meslands Community College in Tucumcari, N.M. said the property Murdock referenced was the 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve, now operated by the National Park Service but that was operated by a trust during a transition period.

“The board was always changing,” he said. “I remember about 2011 through 2014, every year, we wondered if it would be the last year for grazing.”

For centuries the area was regularly burned and was used for communal grazing for sheep and cattle owned by Navajo and Spanish residents of the region. Hands-off policies quickly led to overgrowth and the area suffered “catastrophic burns” in recent years, he said.

“It’s a sad story,” he said.

Current National Park Service information on the area shows a return to management with controlled burns and allowance of only limited grazing on a small portion of the historic ranch lands.

Strong said such an example is a far cry from what might be envisioned under any incarnation of a future Oklahoma Department of Wildlife given habitat management practices already in place, oversight by the commission, the legislature and mandates in the state constitution.

Kelly Bostian is a conservation communications professional working with the Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to education and outreach on conservation issues facing Oklahomans. To support Kelly’s work please consider making a tax deductible donation at https://oklahomaconservation.org.

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