A federal grant originally intended to expand the state’s wildlife management areas -- with Middle Georgia’s black bear habitat as the top priority -- will now likely be used to simply maintain existing leases, state officials say. That’s because the state cut its own budget for wildlife management areas and is using the grant to make up some of the difference.
The state owns some WMAs, but more are leased from private landowners. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources improves habitat there for public hunting and fishing. In Middle Georgia, Oaky Woods WMA and the Ocmulgee WMA also make up the heart of a small black bear habitat in Houston, Twiggs, Bleckley and Pulaski counties.
“Our original thought was adding properties adjacent to (Ocmulgee and Oaky Woods), or if we could find large tracts bears use in the area,” particularly tracts owned by industrial forest owners, said Alex Coley, assistant chief of game management in the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “We want to focus on the river corridors and expanding out from those, since that’s the prime breeding habitat.”
But he said the state would not have resumed leasing land that was formerly part of Oaky Woods and is now owned by a group of Warner Robins developers, who have asked for much higher rates than at other WMAs across the state. The bear population, estimated at about 300, was a key driver behind Georgia’s $29 million purchase of a large portion of Oaky Woods from those developers in 2010.
Coley said Georgia applied for a grant of just a little more than $1 million over three years to expand public hunting on private lands through the Voluntary Public Access and Incentive Program, which Congress created in 2008. For the first year, Georgia was awarded $325,000.
But the program’s budget was cut by Congress, eliminating the second year of funding. Coley said the money has been restored in versions of the 2013 budget proposed by President Barack Obama and the U.S. Senate, so more could be on the way.
The DNR had initially hoped that if the grant covered new WMA leases for three years, Georgia’s revenues would have recovered enough for the state to keep up the leases on its own, Coley said.
But the federal budget cut was just the first hitch. The second was that Gov. Nathan Deal’s 2012 state budget cut $210,000 from the DNR’s budget for WMA leases, Coley said. Then the supplemental budget cut $500,000 more. The total budget for DNR leases dropped from about $900,000 in fiscal 2011 to $195,000 in fiscal 2012, according to data Coley provided.
Documents related to the federal grant show budget cuts and timber company land sales had already led Georgia to eliminate 72,000 acres from its WMAs since 2006. The number of leases dropped by half, from 48 to 24, and the acreage dropped from 192,000 to 120,000.
In Middle Georgia, WMA acreage dropped from 43,825 acres in 2007 to 32,556 acres this year, Coley said.
Coley said federal officials have indicated that Georgia can use the $325,000 to simply maintain current leases, if the state would otherwise have to give up that public access. But even that wouldn’t be enough to make up the funding gap for the fiscal year that ends June 30, and Coley said the DNR is still trying to figure out how to shift money to do so. Current WMA leases end with the fiscal year.
“Right now, we are trying to weigh our options,” Coley said. “We’re trying not to lose our current acres, but a lot of landowners want to raise the (lease) rate because of the economy.”
Pierre Howard, president of the Georgia Conservancy and a former lieutenant governor, said re-purposing the grant is an example of the state’s troubling habit of diverting money from its intended purpose to balance the budget.
“And it points up the need we have in Georgia for a permanent source of land conservation funding” that is not reliant upon annual appropriations by the Legislature, he said.
“If we can’t take good care of what we have, it’s hard to make the argument that you need more,” Howard said.
The state’s original grant proposal would have used the 3-year grant for three primary purposes:
Leasing 15,000 additional acres from up to 10 different landowners to expand WMAs, with a focus on Middle Georgia to conserve the black bear population;
Leasing 1,000 to 1,200 more acres from up to 13 landowners for increased dove hunting access statewide; and,
Creating a database online to track and publicize hunting opportunities on private land that isn’t under lease, including private landowners who are willing to host youth or disabled hunters.
Coley said the state may still try to develop a list of private landowners who are willing to allow some public hunting on their land, but there won’t be enough money to develop a website. The state won’t know until June or July whether it will have any money from the grant left for adding new WMA acreage, he said.
Most WMA management costs aren’t even paid for by the state. They are covered largely by hunters through gun licenses.
Money from the licenses is passed back to the state by the federal government, but the state must offer a 25 percent match, often in the form of employee man-hours rather than dollars.
“State lawmakers really shouldn’t be cutting the DNR budget for leases because 75 percent already comes from the federal government,” said John Trussell, a Houston County outdoor writer who founded Save Oaky Woods. “When the state cuts its portion, they’re hurting themselves in a big way.”
He added that sportsmen need to be more informed and vocal about their opposition to the loss of funding. “It has gotten to where it is very harmful, and it can’t continue,” he said.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.