Columns » Ernest Dumas

The drill rig’s blight

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Few of us there are, particularly in the poor hills of Arkansas, who would not trade away the divine harmony of nature for the financial security of drilling rigs and pipelines, but you would think that a government agency dedicated to natural preservation might be immune to the lure.

And especially one that by Arkansas standards is already flush with money from its own array of dedicated taxes.

But the state Game and Fish Commission announced proudly last week that it had signed agreements with Chesapeake Energy Corp., one of the nation's largest natural gas producers, to lease nearly 12,000 acres in two of its wildlife management regions for gas exploration. Chesapeake paid the agency $29.5 million up front and will remit 20 percent of the royalties from the gas from the lands. Royalties could run to tens of millions of dollars a year when the Petit Jean and Gulf Mountain areas are fully explored.

The gas company will honeycomb the wildlife areas with wells and transmission lines, but the deal is that its big rigs will be silent during hunting season to pacify hunters and game and it will try to restore the scores of drilling sites and the pipeline excavations to a respectable condition after the wells are completed, just as the drilling companies promise to do with every well. You may visit any of hundreds of sites in Van Buren, White and Cleburne counties to collect an image of what is in store for hunters and their quarry or, so much easier, view pictures of a neighborhood drill site on the ninjapoodles weblog at the Arkansas Times website.

Wildlife management areas are acquired with state funds and federal monies under the Pittman Robertson Act of 1937, which encouraged the states to preserve pristine natural areas as resting, feeding and breeding places for wildlife. Especially in the South, wildlife habitat was vanishing under the ax and the earthmovers, and the great wildlife restoration act was supposed to reverse the trend and get the states involved in preserving natural areas and improving wildlife habitat. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has been a leader in preservation.

Leasing large areas of unblighted wilderness for gas production would not seem to be in sync with that objective. It would be hard to find any development in the Ozarks less harmonious with nature than a horizontal drilling rig.

Everyone is familiar with the lovely crags and valleys along the Petit Jean River. The Gulf Mountain WMA, which lies between the South Fork of the Little Red River and Cedar Creek near Scotland, is a more remote treasure.

But the Game and Fish Commission says it needs the money, and if Moreland's Sixth Law is invoked, it does. Revenues will never be enough to meet the needs

After the sales tax was raised an eighth of a penny in 1997, with 40 percent of it earmarked forever for the game preservation fund, the agency's annual budget has soared from $29 million to more than $80 million.

If the government is going to reap a bonanza from the despoliation of its natural areas, why should the money not go to meet people's most urgent needs? More than a few legislators would like to do it, and Gov. Beebe said last week that the agency maybe should share some of the money. But Game and Fish says the law forbids the diversion of the money to other needs, though it might share a little with agencies that might police and help restore the land.

Beebe is on tenuous ground because he issued a legal opinion as attorney general in 2006 that leasing proceeds and royalties probably could not be used for other purposes under Amendment 35, the 1944 law that was supposed to take Game and Fish out of politics. It has general language that the legislature cannot appropriate funds raised for wildlife management for any other purposes.

A good case can be made that he was wrong and that the huge gas receipts can be used for any purpose the legislature and the governor foresee. The Game and Fish amendment was written at least partly in response to the Pittman-Robertson Act, which said states could not claim any of the federal matching funds until they had firm laws forbidding the diversion of hunting and fishing license fees away from the wildlife agency, which had been a problem in a number of states, including Arkansas. Amendment 35 did that and made Arkansas eligible for federal wildlife grants.

The language prohibiting diversion is broader than hunting license fees, but it implies that the money must arise from wildlife management and regulation. Despoiling thousands of acres of wildlife habitat does not meet that standard, and harvesting nature's bounty from a mile beneath the ground seems like a legacy that everyone should enjoy and not just the hunters. But they won't.

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