Suit seeks revocation of tax exemptions on WHA leased hunting properties

Editor and Publisher

Hunters, corporate forest landowners, local public governing bodies, and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, will be watching a lawsuit filed in Fourth District Court in Bastrop on December 20, challenging the constitutionality of a 1987 Legislative act exempting local and state property taxes on corporate forest lands leased to the State for hunting by the public.

The suit is filed by Bastrop attorney Travis Holley on his own behalf, specifically seeking to remove the property tax exemption on a 25,480 acre tract comprising Georgia Pacific Wildlife Management Acre west of Bastrop. Attorney Holley, who lives near the Management Area, told the Bastrop Daily Enterprise, "If this legislation is found to be unconstitutional, this will mean an additional $41,040.68 per year that will be paid to the Parish in the form of property taxes." The suit also seeks payment of taxes retroactively, which if granted would total some $300,000 to Morehouse Parish governing bodies.

The tract originally was leased to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries by Georgia Pacific Corporation, for management as a public hunting area, under regulations controlled by the LDWF. Ownership of the land transferred to The Timber Company, a subsidiary of GP, and then to Plum Creek Timber Co., which acquired timberland assets of The Timber Company in a merger finalized during 2001. The GP lease was originally granted in 1994 for a period of 25 years, and remains in force under the Plum Creek ownership.

Brent Stinnett, forest operations manager for Plum Creek Timber Company in Crossett, Arkansas, told The Piney Woods Journal in late December that he is aware of the suit, but that the Company has not sorted out its position yet.

He said the arrangement allowing the State to manage the area for hunting by the public, in exchange for a waiver of property taxes seems "equitable." Should the Company manage the land for timber and private hunting club leases, the financial return to the Company would be better.

Dave Arnolbi, assistant administrator for the LDWF's enforcement division, said the Department manages some 400,000 acres of privately-owned lands under similar leases for hunting by the public, including the Jackson-Bienville, Bodcau, Loggy Bayou, Bouef, Bayou Macon, and Union Wildlife Management Areas in North and Western Louisiana. All have similar lease arrangements. Generally speaking, the Department applies strict regulations on the Management Areas, because hunting pressure from the public tends to be greater than on lands leased to private hunting clubs.

Corporate timberland owners retain ownership and rights to manage and harvest timber on most of the Wildlife Management Areas, but give up potential revenues from private hunting club leases, which has become a significant revenue source for corporate and some large private landowners. Industry-wide, corporate forest land owners own and manage some four million acres in Louisiana, most of which they reserve for lease to private hunting clubs.

(A group of Northeast Louisiana farmland owners earlier this year formed an association to develop under-performing agricultural land for hunting and nature areas. See a separate story in this issue.)

Arnolbi says the outcome of the Morehouse Parish suit will have implications statewide, if the Legislative Act of 1987 is found unconstitutional.

If Holley's suit prevails, imposing property taxes on forest lands leased to LDWF, corporate forest land owners would likely weigh their decisions to renew leases to the LDWF for public hunting against the prospect of generating revenues from lease of their lands to private hunting clubs. Many private, non-industrial forest land owners have taken advantage of the state's easy posting law to make much of their land unavailable to public hunting, making the Federal lands of Kisatchie National Forest the prime territory available for public hunting and other recreational uses, subject to game laws and federal regulations.

In an article in the December 26 edition of The Bastrop Daily Enterprise, staff writer Amanda Hill Houston writes: "Local attorney Travis Holley contends that an act passed by the Legislature relieving landowners who establish wildlife management areas on their property from the burden of state and local taxes conflicts with language in Section 21 of Article 7 of the Louisiana Constitution, and is therefore unconstitutional.

"Holley, the plaintiff in the suit, has named Plum Creek Timber Company, Inc., North American Timber Corp., Georgia Pacific Corporation, Plum Creek Southern Timber, LLC, Morehouse Parish Sheriff Danny McGrew and Morehouse Parish Tax Assessor Michael Wooden as defendants.

"The property in question receiving a tax exemption is a 25,480 acre tract primarily located in Ward 2 of Morehouse Parish and is near Holley's residence.

" `If this legislation is found by the court to be unconstitutional as I believe it will be, this will mean an additional $41,040.68 per year that will be paid to the parish in the form of property taxes, with $15,804.31 going to the Morehouse Parish School Board - and they need this money - not to mention Beekman school, who would receive $2,739.10 annually. If this is made retroactive, we could be looking at over $300,000 in taxes that our parish will collect,' said Holley.
"The suit seeks past due taxes and future taxes.

"No taxes have been paid on the property since 1994. The property was leased for a 25-year term from Georgia Pacific to the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries.

"The suit is asking the court to issue a Write of Mandamus to Michael Wooden, Morehouse Parish Tax Assessor, directing him to place the property on the assessment roll, and assess according to the law the millage application to the property made subject of the lease, which expires on June 8, 2019.

"The suit also states an additional Writ of Mandamus be issued by the court to Morehouse Parish Sheriff Danny McGrew directing him to collect all ad valorem taxes from the defendants . . .

" `We are losing $41,040.68 each year and what are we getting for that loss? Two days of youth deer hunting, nine days of buck only hunting, three days of either sex hunting, and two days of muzzle loader hunting - a total of 16 days of deer hunting,' said Holley.

"He additionally pointed out that the taxpayers are also having to pay the State of Louisiana for the salaries of game wardens and other services the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries provide on the property.

" `This lawsuit will do nothing to restrict hunting rights on the property. It is merely seeking money that our parish and schools so desperately need right now, and the cost to maintain the property as a Wildlife Management Area will be shifted to the State of Louisiana instead of our local government, which seems fair, since folks from all over the state are enjoying the privilege to hunt on our local wildlife management area,' added Holley."

In a letter to the editor of the Bastrop newspaper published prior to the filing of the suit, attorney Holley said, "Our Constitution, and specifically Art. 7, Section 21, provides as follows:

"Section 21. In addition to the homestead exemption provided for in Section 20 of this Article, the following property and no other shall be exempt from ad valorem taxation."
(The other exempt property is not shown in Holley's letter.)
"Nevertheless, the Legislature in 1987 passed the following Act dealing with the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Commission:

"LSA-R.S. 56:24, the Commission (Department of Wildlife and Fisheries) may contract with any private landowner for the use of his lands for a term of not less than 25 years for the purpose of establishing wildlife management areas, and may agree, where such use is granted without compensation or payment therefor, that the land shall be relieved of all state, parish, and district taxes except in such cases where a tax has been contracted to be levied thereon for the retirement of a bond issue or for other outstanding debts or obligations, so long as the lands are used for the purpose stated. Any existing agreement to the foregoing is validated."

"I sincerely believe that the act passed by the legislature conflicts with the specific language set forth in Sec. 21 of Art. 7 of the Louisiana Constitution, and therefore is unconstitutional.

(The letter states information on hunting regulations already mentioned, above).

"Small game and waterfowl hunting is the same as the outside, with the exception of those days that conflict with the deer youth hunt, and water fowl hunting is prohibited after 2:00 p.m. In addition, there are numerous regulations you must comply with when entering and leaving the WMA, and there is the prohibition against using ATVs. There is a very limited use of the property for small game and waterfowl.

"What is more frustrating to me as a hunter is the fact that many of the people I see using the WMA are not even from Morehouse Parish. It seems like the vast majority are from South Louisiana, who flock here in droves during the hunting season, yet have to bear no cost for the loss of revenue to our local government.

"From my own experience, a father and son hunting trip are times that you will always cherish. This lawsuit will do nothing to restrict that right. I do not belong to a hunting club, and I do not think that hunting should be restricted only to the wealthy. I do believe that the rule of law should apply to all of us, and should be applied fairly and impartially.

"If the Court declares the exemption to be unconstitutional and requires the payment of the taxes, nothing will prevent Plum Creek Corporation from maintaining this as a Wildlife Management Area. Nothing will prevent the State of Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries from leasing the property to be used as a WMA. It will simply mean that the cost to maintain the property as a WMA will be shifted to the State of Louisiana instead of our local government, which seems much more appropriate in light of the fact that people throughout the state enjoy the privilege to hunt for free in our local WMA."