U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said Tuesday that he does not support the planned sale of 6,300 acres of the University of Arkansas System's Pine Tree Research Station in St. Francis County.
Congress' approval is required for the sale to go through.
"I share the concerns of outdoor enthusiasts about the loss of public lands for recreational usage so I will not support a waiver for the sale of the research station," Boozman said in a statement about five hours after state lawmakers grilled UA System officials about the sale.
Boozman is the state's senior senator and the ranking member on the committee that would have a say in the Pine Tree sale.
Lawmakers meeting earlier in Little Rock accused UA System officials of "arrogance" and of "thwarting the will" of the General Assembly in continuing with the sale of 6,300 acres to Lobo Farms LLC for some $17.6 million, plus a $1 million endowment.
"It blows my mind why y'all continue to go on and stick your finger in the eye of the Legislature," said Sen. Ron Caldwell, R-Wynne, a leader in the Legislature's efforts this spring to prohibit the sale of the property to a private entity.
Lawmakers passed two such bills.
Wet and heavily wooded, the acres set for sale aren't conducive to the row-crop research conducted elsewhere at the research station. Because of that, the acreage has been open for decades to the public for fishing, hunting, hiking and bird-watching.
UA System President Donald Bobbitt said the system is legally obligated to follow the terms of a contract executed with Lobo Farms before passage of the new laws. "This is a valid contract," Bobbitt said.
The lawmakers' criticism and UA's defense of the sale were aired Tuesday in a joint meeting of the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs and the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs.
Caldwell said during the meeting that he spoke Friday night with Boozman, who sits on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. Caldwell said Boozman told him that he would not bring up the Pine Tree sale for a committee vote on the congressional waiver.
Boozman's office issued the statement after the Democrat-Gazette sought to confirm Caldwell's account. His office confirmed the accuracy of Caldwell's account of meeting with Boozman last week.
Congress' approval of the Pine Tree sale -- and Boozman's pivotal role in that -- is rooted in the research station's history.
The station grew out of the UA Agriculture Division's purchase of some 11,800 acres in 1960 from the U.S. Forest Service for $560,000. The final payment was made in 1978. The deed specified that the acreage was to be returned to the Forest Service should it ever cease being used as a "public purpose," unless Congress approved a waiver.
The Agriculture Division didn't immediately respond early Tuesday evening to a request for comment about Boozman's statement. Nor has the division responded to a request under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, first filed on Friday by the Democrat-Gazette and renewed on Monday and Tuesday, for UA-Forest Service correspondence about the Pine Tree sale.
During the legislative hearing, Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Little Rock, said UA officials were "thwarting the will" of legislators.
House Bill 1694, now Act 564, prohibits the sale of the property to a private entity. The bill was approved 88-1 in the House and 31-3 in the Senate.
Senate Bill 447, an appropriations bill for the UA System's Agriculture Division, contained special language prohibiting the sale. Now Act 582, it was approved 30-5 in the Senate and 88-0 in the House.
Mark Cochran, UA's vice president for agriculture, said the possible sale of the acreage at the Pine Tree station has been worked on since about 2017 or 2018. "We weren't trying to pull a fast one," he told lawmakers.
The contract with Lobo Farms expires July 1, after an agreement late last year by both parties to postpone the original Dec. 31 deadline to close the sale. The contract extension was aimed at giving the General Assembly time to decide whether to appropriate the money for another state agency to buy the Pine Tree property.
No such funding -- an idea pushed last fall by Caldwell -- was approved.
Cochran asked lawmakers to "be patient" and "let us get this resolved."
A little later, he said, "I'd disagree with you that we're being arrogant in trying to proceed. We're trying to see what the guidelines and the process should be."
If the contract with Lobo expires and an extension requires the approval of both parties, Caldwell said, "All you have to do is say, 'We don't agree to this.' What part of 'no' do you not understand?"
No lawmakers attending the meeting came to the UA system's defense.
Sen. Jim Hendren, an independent from Sulphur Springs who voted against both bills prohibiting the sale, said lawmakers criticizing the sale were wrong.
"It's inconsistent that the Legislature, on one hand, hammers higher education to find outside funding and to make dollars go further and then, on the other hand, hammers an institution of higher education when it tries to take that advice and makes a sound business decision," Hendren said by telephone after the meeting. "The Legislature got in the wrong lane on this one."
The UA System's board of trustees approved the sale in March 2020. The sale was on the board's agenda for that meeting and didn't require public bids or public notice, according to UA officials.
Protests by hunters upset about a reduction in hunting permits brought the sale to public attention, primarily on social media, late last summer.
The state Game and Fish Commission, in a cooperative venture with the Agriculture Division, has been managing the property as a wildlife demonstration area. It has been asked to sign a new cooperative agreement, to run through Dec. 31, to manage hunting and fishing on the property.
The Agriculture Division has touted the sale as a way to provide funding for construction of the new Northeast Rice Research and Extension Center just south of Jonesboro, for long-deferred maintenance needs, and for programs in forestry and smart farming.
Lobo Farms, which is registered in Poinsett County with its principal agent based in Memphis, made the only offer for the acreage -- $17.6 million plus a $1 million gift to a wetlands and waterfowl conservation endowment. The sale to Lobo came about only after failed efforts to sell the land to Game and Fish, some other state agency, or a nonprofit, according to the UA.
Several lawmakers on Tuesday said they don't believe the Lobo Farms sales contract is valid because the congressional waiver wasn't sought, nor approved, prior to the sales contract being entered. The UA delegation said Tuesday that it was informed that the U.S. Senate committee that considers such waivers prefers to know beforehand the identity and intentions of a buyer.
JoAnn Maxey, a UA System attorney, told lawmakers that the system didn't want to be sued by Lobo Farms for breach of contract.
"We understand there's a [state] law out there; we also understand there's a contract out there," Maxey said. "At some point maybe it will be a court of law that will make a ruling on this issue. We're making our best effort to position ourselves, or to do what we need to do, in order to protect the interests of the university."
Regarding the Forest Service and the sale, Caldwell said that federal agency is against it. He cited a letter in October from the service to UA officials.
"You failed to disclose that [letter] during the session when we were negotiating all this," Caldwell said. "It came out after the session."
While UA officials have maintained that the Forest Service doesn't oppose the sale and has no interest in taking back the acreage, Cochran on Tuesday characterized the Forest Service as being "neutral."
"What they told us is very different from what Senator Caldwell said," Cochran said, referring to a telephone call in March with the Forest Service, not the October letter.