Before Hurricane Katrina made landfall August 29, Sam Polles was ready for action.
As head of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP) — a supporting agency under Gov. Haley Barbour’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan — Polles sent 50 wildlife officers with boats, ATVs, trucks, chainsaws and bivouac equipment to the hardest hit areas of the Gulf Coast to assist with search-and-rescue missions and other law enforcement tasks as directed by the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). Department personnel also assisted with the evacuation of the injured, and aided emergency and medical personnel.
The Mississippi Business Journal caught up with Polles to ask him about the category four storm’s impact on the state’s natural resources that he supervises and the department’s budget, diverted plans and upcoming changes.
Mississippi Business Journal: What role is the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries & Parks playing in the relief and restoration efforts related to Hurricane Katrina?
Sam Polles: A Response Command Center was established at the Lyman Fish Hatchery near Gulfport to serve as the agency’s field headquarters for all hurricane field operations. The facility accommodates 50 to 60 officers, and rotations are scheduled every four days. The facility has also served to house wildlife agency personnel from other states that have been dispatched to Mississippi to assist with the relief effort. Although search-and-rescue missions are continuing to some degree, the primary focus is shifting to food and water distribution, law enforcement and security, cleanup and restoration of state parks, wildlife management areas and state lakes.
The department is continuing to work very closely with the Governor’s Office, MEMA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the relief effort.
MBJ: How will this effort affect the department budget?
SP: Costs of Hurricane Katrina to MDWFP are expected to be $28 million-plus over the next couple of years. This will have a severe impact on the agency’s total operating budget. These additional costs will impact every major program in the agency. Entrance fees and gift shop sales at the Museum of Natural Science are projected to drop by an estimated $650,000 over the next 12 months. This, along with projected recovery efforts of $430,000, would have an effect of over $1 million on the museum’s operating budget.
Losses in state parks’ revenue are estimated to be in excess of $5 million over the next two years. In addition, general funds may be impacted by the possible loss in state revenues. This challenge is complicated by the fact that one of our major revenue generating facilities, Buccaneer State Park, has been completely destroyed and others in the southern areas have been severely damaged.
Revenues from license sales are projected to drop by approximately 50% ($2.6 million) over the next six months with the storm’s impact being felt primarily by the sporting public of south Mississippi and Louisiana. Additionally, this revenue loss could have a greater impact in that it may impede the agency’s ability to match and receive federal funds, which account for 25% of our Wildlife and Fisheries budget.
Relief efforts by the Law Enforcement Division in the affected counties are currently costing an additional $31,000 per day. This figure should drop in the coming weeks as conditions improve and as plans to partner with other federal and state agencies to share costs are finalized. However, law enforcement operations over the next 12 months are expected to cost an additional $2.3 million, which represents a 22% increase in the division’s operating budget.
MBJ: How much damage was done to MDWFP assets as a result of Hurricane Katrina?
SP: Hurricane Katrina caused widespread damage to numerous MDWFP assets. Damage to department facilities, infrastructure, equipment and timber assets is extensive: $22 million in facilities and infrastructure assets, $25 million in timber value and $800,000 in equipment. Timber salvage and cleanup expenses are estimated at $1 million.
Hurricane Katrina caused facilities, equipment, and infrastructure damage at 12 state parks. Buccaneer State Park at Waveland sustained a total loss of facilities, equipment, and infrastructure estimated at over $14 million. Also, Percy Quin, Paul B. Johnson, Clarkco and LeFleur’s Bluff State parks sustained serious facilities damage.
Damage at 16 Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) is estimated at $5.9 million. The Lower and Upper Pascagoula WMAs experienced the most extensive damage. Also, the Leaf River, Marion County, Little Biloxi, Nanih Waiya, Wolf River and Ward Bayou WMAs sustained serious asset damage.
The Lyman and Meridian Fish Hatcheries, plus 13 state lakes, experienced asset damage estimated at over $400,000. The Lyman Fish Hatchery near Gulfport sustained the worst asset damage.
Old River Wildlife Management Area sustained timber damage estimated at $13 million, which represents a 75% loss on 13,000 acres. Paul B. Johnson State Park sustained the worst timber damage on state parks, estimated at a 50% loss.
MBJ: How have state budget cuts from the last few years affected MDWFP, especially the state parks?
SP: The state’s fiscal climate over the last few years has caused all entities to rethink the manner in which public business is conducted. The challenge has been to continue to provide quality services with declining revenues, while seeking and obtaining alternative funding sources. To this end, we have developed a comprehensive marketing strategy in an effort to increase park visitors, offered non-traditional recreational opportunities such as disk golf and remote motorboat competitions, and implemented a regional management system.
MBJ: Tell us about the importance of Mississippi’s outdoor recreation offerings on tourism and what role the department has in developing it.
SP: Outdoor recreation in Mississippi has a big impact on state revenues. Mississippi sportsmen annually pay $55.6 million in state sales, fuel and income taxes. This could fund the annual education expenses for 10,500 students. Sportsmen support more jobs in Mississippi than the Ingalls Shipbuilding Corporation (12,258 jobs vs. 10,000 jobs).
Mississippi sportsmen annually spend $671 million, and the ripple effect is $1.2 billion on the state’s economy.
Without sportsmen investing in tomorrow, where would wildlife be? Sportsmen are the financial backbone for the management of fish and wildlife in every state in the U.S. Without them investing in conservation for the long term, the only wildlife you might see would be in a zoo.
MBJ: With the heart of the hunting season upon us, what regulation changes should hunters know about?
SP: The MDWFP wildlife technical staff currently sees no biological justification for changing Mississippi’s hunting regulations based on the impact of Hurricane Katrina.
However, some future regulatory changes might occur relative to access to public hunting areas in the state. For example, the U.S. Forest Service is considering regulatory changes that might limit access to some public areas. These potential regulatory changes would be in response to concerns of public safety and security of infrastructure and timber resources rather than wildlife population concerns.
Storm damage on some of these areas has significantly limited vehicular access, making public use difficult and causing safety concerns. Also, excessive litter on the forest floor has increased the potential for accidental forest fires, which could jeopardize public safety and cause additional damage to public interests such as timber stands and infrastructure.
Sam Polles Bio
A native of Clarksdale, Sam Polles earned a biology degree from Delta State University and received his master’s degree and doctorate from Mississippi State University.
After working in the research department of the University of Georgia at Tifton, Ga., and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Stoneville, Polles co-owned and operated a private farming, timber, nursery and oil operation, and a successful hunting preserve, Longleaf Plantation. In 1992, Gov. Kirk Fordice appointed him to serve as executive director of MDWFP.
Under Polles’ leadership, the agency successfully lobbied for key legislation to renovate and build state parks and point-of-sale, Internet and toll-free telephone license sales. He implemented a district office concept to provide quick responses to local public inquiries and needs, was instrumental in gaining approval to construct a new fish hatchery to serve north Mississippi and helped initiate a merit system for all sworn officers.
Polles served two terms as president of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and is an ex-officio member of the Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Foundation board of directors.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.