Sportsmen are losing access to another 50,000 acres of the Three Rivers Wildlife Management Area in southeastern Oklahoma.
On Monday, state wildlife commissioners approved a new three-year agreement with the the Weyerhauser Co., which owns the land, but 50,000 acres currently on the southern end of Three Rivers will no longer be open to the public.
Weyerhauser plans to lease that land to private hunting groups, said Alan Peoples, head of the wildlife division for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
Sportsmen will still have access to 200,000 acres of the Three Rivers WMA for hunting, four-wheeling, hiking and bird and wildlife watching. At least for the next three years.
But the price to Oklahoma sportsmen for use of the land keeps going up. In 1998, Weyerhauser first entered into a 10-year agreement with the Wildlife Department for public use of the land.
Initially, the Wildlife Department did not have to pay Weyerhauser for public access to the land. The company was willing to allow sportsmen to hunt the timber country in exchange for state game wardens patrolling the property and helping to protect its investment.
The Wildlife Department also hired biologists to manage wildlife on the property.
But in the last decade the price of hunting leases has skyrocketed. The timber land in southeast Oklahoma is prime hunting country and thus very attractive to hunters willing to pay for it.
Three Rivers WMA used to be 475,000 acres, but in 2008 the Wildlife Department lost access to almost half of it when Weyerhauser decided to start leasing hunting rights on the land to private individuals and groups.
In 2008, when the 10-year agreement ended with Weyerhauser, the Wildlife Department entered into a three-year agreement with the timber company for public use of the remaining 250,000 acres of Three Rivers WMA.
The Wildlife Department also began paying Weyerhauser 50 cents an acre for public access.
That three-year agreement ends next month and the Wildlife Department now has entered into a new three-year deal.
Under the new agreement approved Monday, the Wildlife Department will pay the timber company $900,000 over the next three years for use of 200,000 acres of Three Rivers WMA.
The agreement calls for payment of $1 per acre the first year, $1.50 per acre the second year and $2 per acre the third year.
Sportsmen pay a land use fee of $40 per year to access both Three Rivers and the Honobia Creek WMAs in southeastern Oklahoma.
Honobia Creek is owned by separate timber investment groups and its current land use agreement with the Wildlife Department ends in September.
Sportsmen once could roam on 250,000 acres in Honobia Creek but that has dwindled 81,000 acres over the years as land has been sold or privately leased by the owners.
The $40 land use permit that sportsmen buy to use Three Rivers and Honobia will not cover what the Wildlife Department now must pay to the timber groups for leases.
Last year, those land use fees generated just $230,000 for the Wildlife Department. Peoples said raising the land use fee has not been considered but could be an option.
The Wildlife Department keeps paying more money for access to less land in southeastern Oklahoma, but Oklahoma is still getting a better deal than neighboring states, Peoples said. Arkansas is paying $4 an acre to lease Weyerhauser timber land for its sportsmen, he said.
“It’s still a good deal,” Peoples said of the new agreement with Weyerhauser. “For $40, a person can hunt a lot of timber property. It’s still a pretty cheap lease. We don’t have as much but we are just glad to keep any of it.”