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White River Refuge expansion gains friends

Posted: February 1, 2014 - 2:38pm
ANN CARR/U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE PHOTO   A young black bear hangs out in a tree on the White River National Wildlife Refuge. This bear is a descendant of the handful of bears left in Arkansas before restoration began in the 1950s.
ANN CARR/U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE PHOTO A young black bear hangs out in a tree on the White River National Wildlife Refuge. This bear is a descendant of the handful of bears left in Arkansas before restoration began in the 1950s.

A hunting and fishing Arkansas icon, the White River National Wildlife Refuge has a variety of friends pushing for its expansion. But substantial opposition has risen.

The proposed enlargement would add about 120,000 acres to the refuge’s present 160,756.

Yes, that is a lot of land. More significant is the location of the proposed expansion — the southeast Arkansas fish and wildlife wonderland near the junctions of the Arkansas, White and Mississippi rivers. This is in southern Phillips County and northeastern Desha County.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has held “scoping” meetings as a first step in the expansion plan. More than half of the land being eyed is owned by The Forestland Group LLC, which bought Memphis-based Anderson-Tully several years back. The company has 65,000 acres for sale near White River Refuge.

Jack Taylor of Fort Smith is a native of DeWitt who has hunted, fished and worked on the refuge.

“We have a chance to get these thousands of acres of habitat into public hands for everyone to use. But we are seeing opposition from people who are against any government expansion, and we are seeing competition from foreign interests that are buying large amounts of timber land here in Arkansas and over the nation,” he said.

Foreign interests? Make that primarily China and Japan, where appetites are voracious for hardwoods in the form of lumber and chips and even sawdust for building and manufacturing.

Opposition to the expansion also is coming from the two dozen or so hunting clubs that presently lease this bottomland from Anderson-Tully.

Keith Weaver of the refuge staff said on the refuge’s web site, “We are seeking to enhance conservation in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley by expanding the White River National Wildlife Refuge and improving connections with four national wildlife refuges, 10 state-owned wildlife management areas, four state-owned natural areas, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lands, Arkansas Post National Monument and private conserved lands. If this proposal is approved, the refuge would be authorized to purchase lands within the expanded boundary only from willing sellers, as funding allows.”

Taylor said his information is that Anderson-Tully would like to sell the land it deems as surplus in one block but may resort to parcel sales if necessary.

What comes next after those scoping meetings is the Fish and Wildlife Service receiving public comments and holding a public meeting, probably in March, to outline the area it would like to acquire.

The idea is to make land purchases from willing sellers. That is a strategy that’s been used for land just to the north on Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. This results in a checkerboard format, but it avoids forcing landowners off their properties.

Weaver said money for the expansion would not come from general federal funds but would come out of the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund from the sale of federal duck stamps, entrance fees from certain national wildlife refuges, import duties on arms and ammunition, from the sale of offshore oil leases, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

For more information on the expansion plan, go online to http://www.fws.gov/whiteriver/expansion/. To sign an online petition to Congress, go to http://www.change.org/petitions/sign-our-online-petition-supporting-expa....

Joe Mosby is the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas’ best known outdoor writer. His work is distributed by the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. He can be reached by e-mail at jhmosby@cyberback.com.

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