The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission unanimously approved at today’s regularly scheduled meeting a minute order authorizing AGFC Director Austin Booth to sign an agreement with the Arkansas Department of Transportation to update the existing Marine Fuel Tax program to enhance public boating access to The Natural State’s waters.
“From the community perspective, the two largest things we provide to Arkansans are our game wardens and public access to land and water throughout The Natural State,” Booth told commissioners during committee meetings held yesterday. “This modernization can help us better serve Arkansans by not only broadening the aperture on how much money we can invest in this sort of access, but also broadening the aperture of what we can do.”
The Marine Fuel Tax Program was created in 1970 in cooperation with the Arkansas Department of Transportation and AGFC to collect a portion of taxes on gasoline purchases devoted to boats and devote those funds toward public access on Arkansas’s waterways. Traditionally, MFT funds could be used only on boat ramps, parking areas and roads devoted to those boat ramps. The money was administered by ArDOT after projects were approved by the AGFC. Local partners were required to contribute matching funds or in-kind contributions to ensure local commitment to the project was healthy.
According to AGFC Chief of Staff Chris Racey, the Marine Fuel Tax Program currently delivers about $1.7 million per year in these construction projects to Arkansans, but there are even more opportunities available.
“We’ve been able to deliver more than $65 million in access projects through this program since 1970, and that’s great, but the formulas used to generate those numbers are based on calculations made in 1967 when the program was being established,” Racey said. We all know a lot has changed since then in how our constituents use our public waters and in the benefits we can offer them.”
According to Racey, updated calculations developed by ArDOT engineers project the funding for the program could be close to $3.7 million per year.
“The inter-agency working team discussed a lot of things that have changed over time and potential needs that have developed for boating access users since 1967,” Racey said. “Recreational boats have much larger motors than in 1967. Additionally, we have boaters who use kayaks and canoes who load them up in the back of a truck or on top of an SUV and drive to those accesses. There are just a lot more ways fuel is being used for boating than the traditional model was designed for.”
The modernized agreement not only will increase the amount of funding for the Marine Fuel Tax program, but it will give the AGFC and its partners more flexibility in the way those funds are spent.
“We’ll now be able to look at other aspects of public boating access,” Racey said. “Things like restrooms, kayak launches, fighting aquatic nuisance species at boat ramps, bank stabilization projects and other projects that can improve people’s ability to enjoy our waters.”
Lastly, the new agreement would transfer the administration of Marine Fuel Tax funds to the AGFC, and would create a position within the agency to develop and track these projects. This will reduce the complexity of approving and administering MFT projects and provide an additional level of oversight and accountability for contractors engaged in these projects.
Booth spoke about the amount of work within both the AGFC and the Arkansas Department of Transportation to bring the modernization to fruition.
“We’d be remiss if we did not thank [former AGFC Director] Pat Fitts for his vision to take an existing asset that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission had and shared with ArDOT and reinvent that to address the needs of the agency, but also the desires of Arkansans in the 21st century,” Booth said.
One project made possible by the previous Marine Fuel Tax program also was approved at today’s meeting. Commissioners authorized Director Booth to enter into agreements with the Arkansas Department of Transportation and NUCOR-Yamato Steel Company to construct a concrete boat launch ramp and parking facility at the current location of Barfield Access on the Mississippi River in Mississippi County. The project, which is estimated at $1 million, with the AGFC reimbursing up to $250,000, will fill a void in public boating access from the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River between Osceola and Blytheville.
During yesterday’s committee meetings, AGFC Real Estate Officer Kevin Mullen explained that access points on the Mississippi River are a priority not only for fisheries and angler use, but also for search-and-rescue operations conducted by the AGFC Enforcement Division and other first responders.
“There was a man that fell off of a barge near this access, and rescuers had to drive all the way to Osceola to launch a boat to be able to get to him,” Mullen said.
The Commission also authorized Director Booth to execute a perpetual conservation easement with Potlatch Deltic Timber to add a 160-acre inholding to Moro Big Pine Natural Area Wildlife Management Area in Calhoun County. The Commission also approved a $54,000 budget increase from the agency’s Stability and Enhancement Fund to complete the transaction and add this interior piece of property to public access in perpetuity.
In other business, the Commission:
- Recognized six employees with a combined 125 years of experience for their service and dedication to the natural resources of Arkansas;
- Heard from AGFC Fisheries Division Assistant Chief Jason Olive on the division’s forage fish production in 2021 (LINK TO PRESENTATION);
- Heard from AGFC Nongame Mammal Program Coordinator Blake Sasse on the 2021 furbearer trapping and hunting report (LINK TO PRESENTATION);
- Heard from AGFC Fisheries Division Chief Ben Batten on the division’s strategic plan update (LINK TO PRESENTATION);
- Authorized Director Booth to execute a grant agreement with The Nature Conservancy for $25,000 to implement a pilot program in summer 2022 that will offer 16- to 18-year-olds from the Little Rock area opportunity to work on conservation, recreation and community-improvement projects and build backgrounds in conservation for future career opportunities;
- Approved code clarifications for youth turkey bag limits and turkey season dates on wildlife management areas. These clarifications state that youths will be allowed only one legal turkey during the youth hunt on each WMA, matching overall harvest limits for those areas. These clarifications were read at the agency’s November 2021 meeting and have been open for public comment for 60 days;
- Awarded retiring AGFC Wildlife Officer Sr. Cpl. Joe D. Purdom his service sidearm after 29 years of dedicated service to the people and natural resources of Arkansas;
- Approved the removal of outdated and obsolete inventory with a total original cost of $152,815 and a present net book value of $7,447;
- Approved a budget increase of $2.2 million for fleet purchases to replace 57 vehicles that will be sold at auction to reclaim a large portion of their replacement cost;
- Approved a budget increase of $500,000 to update information technology infrastructure that has exceeded its expected reliable lifespan;
- Authorized Director Booth to enter into a lease agreement with F5 Investments, LLC to lease an office facility in Mountain Home. The facility will serve as a temporary regional office location to improve working conditions for staff due to the current state of the previously leased office space. Commissioner Rob Finley recused himself from the vote and all discussions on the matter to prevent any conflicts of interest, as he is an officer in the LLC which will serve as the leaseholder in the agreement.
A video of the meeting is available at https://www.youtube.com/user/ArkansasGameandFish.