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UA land sale continues, despite law

by Stephen Steed | June 8, 2021 at 7:06 a.m.
Pengyin Chen holds up a new variety of soybeans at the Pine Tree Research Station near Colt in this 2013 file photo. Chen was the director of the soybean breeding program at the University of Arkansas System’s Division of Agriculture at the time the photo was taken.

The University of Arkansas System is continuing with plans to sell about half of the acreage at its Pine Tree Research Station in St. Francis County to a private entity even though the General Assembly this spring passed a law prohibiting the sale.

The UA Division of Agriculture has asked the state Game and Fish Commission to sign a cooperative agreement to manage hunting and fishing activities on the 6,300 acres that have been under a sales contract since last year. The commission's management would continue through the end of the year, according to the proposal.

"The [UA System] is still trying to salvage the sale," Sen. Ron Caldwell, R-Wynne, whose district includes the Pine Tree station, said. "If they continue, they will make a lot of legislators mad. There will be major blowback."

The sale will be on the agenda of a joint meeting of the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs and the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs at 10 a.m. today.

Caldwell was a leader in legislative efforts to stop the sale to a private entity, Lobo Farms LLC, which is registered with the secretary of state's office as being based in the Poinsett County community of Fisher. Its principal agent is based in Memphis.

Caldwell also has asked the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee "to conduct a full audit" of the agriculture division and the process it followed in its efforts to sell the Pine Tree acreage. Caldwell said he believes the acreage should remain open for public use and not sold to a private entity.

House Bill 1694, now Act 564, prohibits the sale.

"The UA just needs to follow the law," said Rep. Steve Hollowell, R-Forrest City, the bill's sponsor. "I just don't understand why they won't do that." Caldwell sponsored the bill in the Senate.

The bill was approved 88-1 in the House and 31-3 in the Senate.

Hollowell said he was uncertain what lawmakers can do. "I just know I won't be happy if they continue with whatever they're trying to do," he said. "I don't know what I can do. But I don't think it's right, and the people around here don't think it's right."

UA System President Donald R. Bobbitt and UA Vice President for Agriculture Mark Cochran, both of whom spoke against HB1694, are scheduled to testify in this morning's legislative committee meeting.

Mary Hightower, a spokeswoman for the Division of Agriculture, said lawmakers' unanswered questions about the sale will be addressed today. She said the new agreement with Game and Fish "will allow for deer permits this fall."

The Game and Fish Commission is considering the proposal for managing the Pine Tree hunting and fishing acreage, Keith Stephens, a spokesman, said. "Our goal is to have a renewed agreement executed by the end of the month."

The 6,300 acres have been open to the public for hunting and fishing for decades. Game and Fish first signed an agreement, to run from 1999-2005, to manage hunting and fishing on the acreage.

Game and Fish Director Austin Booth should be able to sign the agreement without going through the commission, Stephens said. Game and Fish received the proposal on May 28.

"We have been working with the University for months on an updated agreement," Stephens said. "Progress stalled and we are now trying to get an updated agreement executed. There are differing opinions about the larger 1999 [wildlife management] agreement and whether or not it is still in force. A renewed agreement will clean all of this up. Regardless of the agreement, we have been cooperating on the area since 1999."

Game and Fish also will resume issuing 900 deer-hunting permits in the Pine Tree acreage this season, Stephens said. That number was reduced to 225 last year because of the pending sale to Lobo Farms. The acreage is open for deer-hunting by bow and small-game and waterfowl hunting without permits.

The proposed contract states that the Game and Fish Commission's management of the 6,300 acres would continue through Dec. 31, even if the sale to Lobo Farms goes through before then. The contract also requires the agreement of Lobo Farms.

Lobo Farms made the only offer for the acreage -- $17.6 million plus a $1 million gift to a wetlands and waterfowl conservation endowment after efforts to sell the land to Game and Fish, some other state agency, or a nonprofit failed, according to the UA.

The 6,300 acres are wet from the L'Anguille River, heavily wooded, and not a good fit with the row-crop research conducted elsewhere at the station, according to the Division of Agriculture.

The Pine Tree station arose from the Division of Agriculture's purchase of some 11,800 acres in 1960 from the U.S. Forest Service for $560,000. The final payment was made in 1978. Just west of Colt, in St. Francis County, on Arkansas 306, Pine Tree is by far the largest of the division's six research stations and five research and extension centers.

While the sale was approved in March 2020 by the UA board of trustees, it also is contingent on the approval of Congress. That's because the deed specified that the acreage be returned to the Forest Service should it ever cease being used as a "public purpose" unless Congress approved a waiver.

Bobbitt, Cochran and UA attorneys testified against legislation aimed at stopping the sale. Bobbitt told lawmakers in March that legislative "attempts to interfere" with the sale could prompt Lobo Farms to sue the UA system for breach of contract.

Caldwell, the state senator whose district includes the Pine Tree station, disputes that, saying he believes the contract is invalid because UA officials didn't get Congress' waiver approving the sale before entering into the contract with Lobo Farms.

Cochran responded that UA officials were informed that the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry prefers to know the identity and intentions of a prospective buyer in such sales prior to granting a waiver. Congress can include in the deed to Lobo Farms any language it desires to define a "public purpose" that Lobo would have to follow, Cochran said.

Lobo Farms and the Division of Agriculture agreed last fall to extend closing on the sale from Dec. 31 through June 30, to give the General Assembly time to decide whether to appropriate enough money for another state agency to buy the Pine Tree acreage. No such funding was approved.

UA says $5 million of the sale's proceeds would go toward a match from the farmer-funded Rice Research and Promotion Board for construction of the Northeast Rice Research and Extension Center planned just south of Jonesboro. Proceeds also would go toward deferred infrastructure needs across the division's properties, an investment in the forestry program at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, programs in precision agriculture and "smart farming" and other research and conservation projects.

While sympathizing with residents who hunt and fish on the acreage, Bobbitt told lawmakers that the Division of Agriculture isn't a wildlife management agency and that more Arkansans would benefit from the sale than from continued access to hunting and fishing.

Bobbitt also said the Pine Tree sale is in line with the General Assembly's directive two years ago for the agriculture division to search for other funding sources and with a UA trustees systemwide order to make an inventory of underutilized property and sell it.

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