Refuge expansion proposal causing panic
by Clay Chandler
Published: July 22,2012
The version of the 2012 Farm Bill that passed a House Committee earlier in July did not include an amendment that would have expanded Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge’s acquisition boundary by 48,000 acres.
The issue has been given new life, though, by Second District Congressman Bennie Thompson.
The panic over the possibility of private land being conveyed to the federal government is back, too.
Thompson, D-Bolton, has done what is known as “pre-filed” legislation that would expand the acquisition areas for Panther Swamp in Yazoo County and for Mississippi Sandhill Crane NWR and the Private John Allen National Fish Hatchery. The bill has not been enrolled, which means it has not been assigned to a committee, and has not started the legislative process. It’s possible the bill could be attached as an amendment to another bill, but that had not happened as of last Wednesday.
Messages left at Thompson’s office in Washington were not returned last week.
Terms of the bill call for each of the NWRs and the hatchery to expand only where there is a landowner willing to sell. That hasn’t prevented Yazoo County officials from condemning the notion. Supervisors, after being told by the tax assessor that the land included in Panther Swamp’s boundary expansion brings in over $500,000 in annual property taxes, unanimously passed a resolution signaling that body’s opposition to the expansion. The Yazoo Herald newspaper reported the assessed value of the targeted area is $4.8 million. Much of it is farm land, interrupted in spots by swamps, creeks, the Yazoo River and Wolf Lake.
And Henry Cote, president of the Yazoo County Chamber of Commerce, said the lack of communication about the idea of expanding the roughly 50,000-acre refuge is troubling. Cote said nobody from the city or county was given a heads-up about the expansion amendment being tacked on to the Farm Bill until the House Committee on Agriculture had finished its mark-up period. He added that nobody from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, or the Department of the Interior, which has dominion over it, has been in contact with local government.
“And what’s even more alarming is that (Thompson) has revived the issue,” Cote said.
The proposed boundary area includes Wolf Lake and farm land surround it, which was one of the harder-hit regions from the 2011 flood. Many of the homes that line the lake required complete renovation after several feet of water seeped in and sat for weeks before draining. “This would wipe out all that new investment,” Cote said. “These people dealt with a 100-year flood last year, and now they have this hanging over them.”
Harry Simmons, who owns Simmons Catfish, takes a more measured approach. His catfish farm sits adjacent to Wolf Lake; many of his ponds were inundated with flood waters last year. His home and his processing plant, thanks to nearly three miles of levees Simmons built, stayed dry.
Simmons points to the provision of Thompson’s bill that stipulated that any land acquired for the expansion of Panther Swamp — or any of the wildlife sanctuaries listed — will require a landowner willing to sell. That seemingly takes off the table the government’s power of eminent domain, weakening the bill’s power to expand anything unless the people who currently live on the targeted land agree to it.
“It’s almost a non-issue right now, except for a few elected officials,” Simmons said. “I haven’t talked with anybody from the government about this, nor do I know of any landowner who has done anything like that.”
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