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October 27, 2010   Email to Friend 

Refuge Plan Meets Opposition From Landowners
Debra Davis

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials who proposed expanding a wildlife refuge in central Alabama by acquiring thousands of acres of private land got an earful from property owners who attended a public hearing in Brent, Sept. 2.

The overflow crowd attended the public hearing as part of a comment period about the proposal made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to expand the Cahaba River Wildlife Refuge from 3,600 acres to 106,415 acres. The service also wants to establish an additional 173,380-acre conservation area adjacent to the refuge by purchasing conservation easements and leases.

Seventy-eight people requested to speak at the hearing and, by far, the majority spoke against the proposal. Among them was Chilton County Farmers Federation President Jimmy Parnell who spoke on behalf of the Alabama Farmers Federation and as a landowner and logger.

"I am here tonight representing the Alabama Farmers Federation, the state's largest farmer organization with more than 400,000 members," Parnell said. "I own property within this proposed expansion, and there is no evidence that the federal government can manage it better than private landowners."

Parnell also pointed out that if landowners want or need assistance with conservation improvements to their property, there are existing programs already available through federal and state government agencies.

The crowd interrupted Parnell with applause on three occasions as he spoke, and his remarks were entered into official testimony of the hearing. Many of those at the meeting, including Parnell, questioned why an economic and environmental impact study was not conducted before the proposal reached this stage. Fish and Wildlife Service officials at the meeting said such a study could be part of the plan once the public comment period was complete.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials repeatedly told the crowd their goal is to acquire land from "willing sellers" and protect the area's natural resources. However, they did concede that the proposal contains the government's right to acquire property through the use of eminent domain.

The eminent domain portion of the plan seemed to draw the most ire from landowners, who repeatedly criticized the service for not properly notifying area landowners of the proposal prior to the meeting.

One angry landowner asked, "How can we trust the government to do what it says when it can't even handle properly notifying the landowners about the proposal?"

The comment period that had been set to expire Sept. 7 was extended to Dec. 6. After the comment period, the service will either draft a new proposal or move forward with the conservation and preservation plan in place.

______________________________ For a copy of the plan, visit www.fws.gov/cahabariver. Comments may be submitted to: Ms. Kimberly Eldridge, 1875 Century Boulevard, Suite 420, Atlanta, GA 30345.


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