LITTLE ROCK — A sharply divided state Game and Fish Commission voted Thursday to reject a $13 million settlement offered in a land dispute with the federal government.
By a 4-3 vote, the commission opted to proceed with its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of a federal appeals court decision that overturned a lower court finding in favor of the state. The nation’s highest court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the landmark case Oct. 3.
Also Thursday, the commission set duck and goose hunting seasons.
The legal dispute is over thousands of trees on Dave Donaldson/Black River Wildlife Management Area in northeastern Arkansas that were killed by water released from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facility, Clearwater Lake, in southeastern Missouri. James Goodhart, the commission’s general counsel, said Thursday that the quality of wildlife has been "greatly diminished" with the loss of timber.
Other states, including Louisiana and Tennessee, have filed briefs in the case in support of Arkansas.
"There is concern over the United States having a free pass to destroy public lands," commissioner Emon Mahony of El Dorado said during Thursday’s Game and Fish meeting.
Some commissioners favored accepting the $13 million settlement offer. Others noted strings that would be attached in addition to the offer being subject to approval by top federal officials. By taking the money, Arkansas would waive any right to sue in the federal if a similar issue arose, commission staff said.
Mahony and commissioners Rick Watkins of Little Rock and Steve Cook of Malvern voted for continuing the appeal, while commissioners Fred Brown of Corning, Ron Duncan of Springdale and Ford Overton of Little Rock voted in favor of accepting the settlement.
Commission chairman Rick Pierce of Mountain Home broke the 3-3 tie with his vote for pursuing the appeal.
The state commission sued the Corps in 2005, claiming that years of flooding had damaged or destroyed timber in the wildlife management area. A U.S. District court found in Arkansas’ favor and awarded the state $5.7 million as compensation and costs for rejuvenating the wildlife managment area near Pocahontas.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit overturned the lower court award.
Periodic of seasonal flooding below dams operated by the Corps of Engineers is not unusual. The agency acquires flowage easements by paying private landowners in advance, then when flooding occurs, no claims or court actions can be taken.
The state and federal agencies had no such arrangement in place at the publicly owned Dave Donaldson/Black River WMA, which covers about 27,000 acres in Clay, Randolph and Greene counties. It is a popular duck hunting area along with deer and small game hunting.
Cleanup is still under way after the trees were killed several years ago and also since a major ice storm a couple of years ago.
In other action Thursday, a duck season format of three segments with two no-hunting splits was proposed, and it is similar to recent years.
Duck, coot and merganser hunting dates are Nov. 17-25, Dec. 6-23 and Dec. 26-Jan. 27.
White-fronted goose dates are Nov. 17-Jan. 27 statewide.
Show, blue and Ross’ goose dates are Nov. 5-Jan. 27 statewide.
Canada goose dates are Sept. 1-15 statewide, Sept. 22-Oct. 1 in the Northwest Canada Goose Zone and Nov. 17-Jan. 27 statewide.
Waterfowl hunting rules were amended to do away with some exceptions for three northeast Arkansas wildlife management areas.
Decoys can no longer be left overnight on Dave Donaldson/Black River, Big Lake and St. Francis Sunken Lakes WMAs. Private blinds on Big Lake and St. Francis Sunken Lands must be removed by owners who must obtain free permits from AGFC to do so.
Any remaining blinds will be destroyed by AGFC crews beginning Oct. 1 on Big Lake and Nov. 1 on St. Francis Sunken Lands.
The issue of the private blinds has drawn heated opposition in the area, with blind owners and users citing long traditions.
Private blinds or blinds left overnight are not allowed on other wildlife management areas.