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Pine Tree land sale dead, says UA System

by Stephen Steed | June 16, 2021 at 7:08 a.m.
Pengyin Chen holds up a new variety of soybeans at the Pine Tree Research Station near Colt in this 2013 file photo. Chen was the director of the soybean breeding program at the University of Arkansas System’s Division of Agriculture at the time the photo was taken.

The University of Arkansas System and a private group of investors have terminated a contract for the sale of 6,300 acres of a state research farm.

"The Division of Agriculture and the prospective buyers of the acreage at the Pine Tree Research Station have mutually agreed to terminate the contract for the sale of the property," Nate Hinkel, a spokesman for the UA System, said Tuesday in a statement.

With approval from the UA System board of trustees, the Division of Agriculture had entered into a contract last year to sell about half of its research station near Colt in St. Francis County to Lobo Farms LLC in the Poinsett County community of Fisher. The sale price was $17.6 million, plus a $1 million endowment for a wetlands and waterfowl conservation program.

As late as last week, UA officials defended the sale in the face of months of criticism from state lawmakers and Arkansas residents who hunt and fish on the 6,300 acres, managed for years by the state Game and Fish Commission as a wildlife demonstration area.

While terminating the contract frees the UA System from a public relations problem, it returns its officials to the dilemma of finding alternative funding for the new Northeast Rice Research and Extension Center just south of Jonesboro and other projects.

The Division of Agriculture had planned to use $5 million of the Pine Tree proceeds to match a grant from the producer-funded Arkansas Rice Research and Promotion Board. The board's grant paid for purchasing the 616 acres for the center, land-leveling and other early costs in the project's development.

"While we are ready to move on from this contentious matter, we are disappointed in losing the $17 million in vital funding the sale would have provided to the Division for rice research, as well as critical and deferred maintenance needs across the state," Hinkel said in the statement.

The Arkansas General Assembly, in passing two bills prohibiting the Pine Tree sale to Lobo, also didn't come up with guaranteed alternative funding this spring.

Sen. Ron Caldwell, R-Wynne, a critic of the sale, said its end should have come sooner. "It's something that should have been done at least six or eight months ago," Caldwell said. "The news was well-received but not totally unexpected. That sales contract was set to expire June 30, and I just couldn't see the UA renewing it."

Caldwell said lawmakers are working with the governor to find money to fund rice research, including the continued work at the Jonesboro center.

"I am not one to carry grudges," Caldwell said. "I want to continue to work with the Division of Agriculture to make life better for the Arkansas farmer in any way we can."

Lawmakers including Caldwell said during a meeting last week with UA that its officials were being arrogant and dismissive of lawmakers; Bobbitt told lawmakers the sale to Lobo was a legal contract executed before lawmakers' actions and that the UA System didn't want to get sued by Lobo for breach of contract.

Mark W. Cochran, UA vice president for agriculture, asked lawmakers for patience as UA continued to work through a months-long "process."

Hinkel later said by email that a mutual end to the sales contract was reached Monday and was part of that process. He also said UA will "continue to advocate for funds for rice research in hopes that we can secure external support for the match."

A representative of Lobo Farms couldn't be reached for comment. A Little Rock attorney who worked for Lobo last year and early this year said he no longer works on the matter. Mark "Field" Norris, an investment banker in Memphis and Lobo Farm's registered agent who signed the termination agreement, didn't return a call seeking comment.

A few hours after the legislative hearing in Little Rock last week, U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., the state's senior senator, told the Democrat-Gazette he opposed the sale.

Boozman's statement was instrumental because the sale to Lobo also was contingent on the approval of Congress.

Boozman is the ranking member of the Senate committee that would have had an early and important role on the Lobo contract. With Boozman's opposition, other members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry would not have pushed for approval of the Pine Tree sale out of deference to Boozman's wishes.

The Pine Tree station grew out of the Division of Agriculture's purchase of some 11,800 acres from the U.S. Forest Service in 1960 for $560,000. The deed specified that without a congressional waiver the acreage was to be returned to the Forest Service should it ever cease being used for public purposes.

In a statement Tuesday, Boozman said, "I am pleased Arkansans will continue to be able to fish, hunt, hike and more on this public land. We appreciate the University of Arkansas and its commitment and leadership in helping fund research projects to help Natural State agricultural producers. I am proud to join the Arkansas delegation to support these efforts."

The termination agreement noted the two laws passed by the General Assembly, "continued opposition to the contemplated sale" and the likelihood of the sale not being approved by Congress. The termination agreement releases from escrow $200,000 that Lobo put up as earnest money and states that UA will pay Lobo $22,500 for the cost of a survey.

"We're glad to see it called off," said James Brandenburg of Bentonville, chairman of the Arkansas chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and an early critic who helped put out word of the sale late last summer. "Now we can move to the next phase of seeing the land being managed properly. If they're not using it for [row crop] research, let's use it for wildlife management."

The Division of Agriculture in late May asked the Game and Fish Commission to sign a short-term agreement to manage the 6,300 acres through Dec. 31 as negotiations with Lobo continued.

Brandenburg said the end of the Lobo contract should now result in a longer and better agreement. He said he'd been told by hunters and anglers of trash and litter problems and of roads in poor condition.

"At this point for us at Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, we are ecstatic," Brandenburg said, adding that the group wanted to work with UA, other state entities and conservation groups in finding ways to improve the property.

The sale of public lands to private entities -- such as the Lobo deal -- should be of national concern, he said.

"We've managed to build partnerships with legislators, state agencies and other decision makers who wanted to keep it in public hands and open to the public," Brandenburg said. "Now we have laws on the books keeping that property open to the public. That's a huge win for the users of public lands."

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