A public hearing on a proposed Game and Parks land purchase drew relatively few people, but several of those in attendance voiced opposition to the plan.
Roughly a dozen people attended the hearing at Chadron City Hall last week to weigh-in on the G&P’s plan to purchase 500 acres of Dawes County land to expand the Ponderosa Wildlife Management Area. The land is currently owned by the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation, and has been for about a year. If the sale is completed, the G&P will use a package of federal funds and state matching dollars for the purchase.
Dawes County Commissioners Jake Stewart and Vic Rivera both spoke in opposition to the purchase. Stewart said that while G&P does make payments in lieu of taxes, agency ownership still has an impact on the county. Between the state and federal government nearly 40 percent of Dawes County will be government-owned if this purchase is approved, Stewart said.
“That is a lot of tracts of land.”
While he understands the state’s perspective on the beauty and habitat provided by northwestern Nebraska, he feels strongly that the state needs to have a conversation with local residents about government ownership. Public hearings like the one last week are fine, but they are usually short and a Tuesday at 9 a.m. doesn’t accommodate working residents, he continued.
Finally, Stewart added, the federal government aids the county with infrastructure – maintaining roads and bridges that provide access to those public areas.
“I’d like to see the state step up and do that,” he said. Dawes County has to find some way to fund an estimated $1 million repair to Dunlap Road in the near future to provide access to the G&P managed Box Butte Reservoir, which is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation.
“The government is here to support its people. When the government owns so much property that it’s taking away from its people, then we’ve got a problem,” Rivera added.
The difficulty in purchasing property locally was an issue cited by more than one individual. Boone Huffman said his neighbors are from Arizona, North Dakota and New Jersey today as it’s nearly impossible for young local families like his to purchase land anymore.
“I want opportunities for young people,” Huffman said.
Huffman, who also runs an outfitter business, stressed that he loves hunting and outdoor recreation but recognizes what he sees as problems that accompany having large tracts of public land located in the area. The availability of public lands floods the area with out-of-state hunters, and while that may bring in money, it also often leads to trespassing on private land and hunters driving down local roads with guns out their windows.
And while the G&P does make payments in lieu of taxes on its wildlife management areas, Huffman continued, the agency owns a lot of property that it does not make those payments on.
“That would make a massive difference to our school,” said Huffman, who is also a school board member. The district is maxed out on its mill levy, has failed to pass a bond issue and is facing millions in repairs and maintenance, not to mention general operations.
“What do we do?” he questioned.
Every local taxing entity is struggling, noted Nancy Fisher, who lives next to the Ponderosa Wildlife Management Area with her husband Gary. Payments in lieu of taxes on WMAs are only a part of the larger picture, because G&P does not make those payments on Chadron State Park, Fort Robinson or any of the improvements on those properties.
“Our taxes our high because we have to make up (for that),” Fisher said. “It is a burden on the taxpayers in this county.”
While the Game and Parks properties do bring business to the area, “it isn’t all advantageous to us,” she said.
Payments in lieu of taxes are established in state law as a substitute for property taxes. Game and Parks makes those payments on its wildlife management areas only. In 2018, those payments totaled approximately $35,000. G&P-owned Fort Robinson and Chadron State Park are exempt from payments in lieu of taxes but do collect sales and lodging taxes. A letter from Game and Parks (Page A-4) says the two state parks collected $190,000 in sales and lodging taxes in 2017 but does not indicate how much of those funds are returned to Dawes County.
Records at the Dawes County Treasurer’s Office show that the county received $237,320.99 in lodging taxes from July 1, 2017, to Aug. 31, 2018; those funds were generated from reservations at every hotel, motel and B&B in the county and a breakdown by individual businesses is not available. Lodging taxes are restricted to certain uses that are designed to generate additional tourism dollars.
Only two individuals present at the hearing spoke in favor of the land purchase.
Northwest Nebraska Development Corporation Deb Cottier voiced her support, noting that tourism is the number two economic driver and saying that agriculture and tourism can co-exist. She also said while it is “technically true” that Game and Parks land may be listed on tax exemption rolls, the G&P does make payments in lieu of taxes to offset that. The agency also has a payroll of more than $1 million in the region, she said.
Carl Larsen also spoke in favor of the purchase, noting that he always believed the Game and Parks did not pay taxes until the former Harry Jacobson property was purchased by the agency. During that acquisition he learned about payments in lieu of taxes and that alleviated his concerns.
The Nebraska chapter of the Wild Turkey Federation also issued a letter in support of the purchase, which was read into the public record. The letter cited additional access for hunters and more economic development for the county.
After the conclusion of the 30-minute public hearing, Game and Parks representatives explained that the agency has a land acquisition plan in place that was approved last year, allowing the agency to purchase critical wildlife habitat and only when there is a willing seller. And while the agency typically only maintains infrastructure on its own property, Pat Molini, the assistant division administrator for wildlife with G&P, said the county should inquire about funding through the state’s recreational road fund for infrastructure improvements.