Public Lands Lost Due to Fiscal Shortfalls
A large expanse of public land in Southeast Oklahoma which has been revered as a “deer hunter’s paradise” and home to the last free-flowing stream in Oklahoma is about to no longer be publicly accessible due to budget struggles faced by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC). Known as the single largest Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in the State, the Three Rivers WMA which encompasses 203,180 acres in McCurtain and Pushmataha counties in southeast Oklahoma is about to relent approximately 30,000 acres from public access and become privately leased thus a loss of some of the most premier public hunting land available in Oklahoma.
In May 2023, the Oklahoma Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) became aware of ODWC’s intent to not renew their lease of a large portion of the Three Rivers WMA due to concerns that the Department would not have sufficient funding to address the increasing per acre lease costs. Since becoming aware of the situation, the BHA Oklahoma Chapter has reached out to leadership at ODWC to inquire how this disappointing news was coming to fruition. The explanation given was that ODWC simply did not have it in the budget to commit to the higher lease rates being imposed by Weyerhaeuser timber company.
In 1969 Weyerhaeuser, a privately owned timber company, acquired the lands where the current day Three Rivers WMA resides. Weyerhaeuser, while managing for commercial timber production, kept it’s lands open to public access, allowing hunting, fishing, use of off-road vehicles and all other forms of outdoor recreation. However, over time the abuse the lands were experiencing from vandalism, dumping of trash, timber theft, arson, and other misuses gave Weyerhaeuser concerns to protecting its resources and investments. Weyerhaeuser began exploring solutions that would allow for the continued use by the public while also protecting the timber company’s assets. This led to a cooperative effort with ODWC to jointly manage the lands for enhancement and preservation of wildlife and their habitats, enhanced public use opportunities, maintain roads and enforcement of illegal activities.
Since the cooperative efforts between Weyerhaeuser and ODWC initiated, Weyerhaeuser has leased the lands designated as the Three Rivers WMA to ODWC via various contracts with annual contract evaluations. As part of the agreements, ODWC offers an annual permit for $40 to Oklahoma residents and $85 for nonresidents for all persons desiring to accessing the WMA for any recreational purpose. The “land access fee” permit is in addition to annual hunting and fishing licenses required for those activities. The funds collected from the sales of the “land access fee” permits are to be designated for the protection and enhancement of Weyerhaeuser lands.
The Three Rivers WMA resides primarily in McCurtain County with smaller portions located in Pushmataha County. After a major land exchange in 1996, the WMA assumed shared boundaries with the Ouachita National Forest. Three Rivers WMA adjoins U.S. Forest Service Lands, the Honobia Wildlife Management Area, the Ouachita Wildlife Management Area (inclusive of the McCurtain County Wilderness Area) which also adjoins with Beavers Bend State Park, and the Broken Bow Reservoir thus broadening the massive footprint of public land in Southeast Oklahoma. The Glover River, the last free-flowing stream in Oklahoma bisects the western portions of the WMA located Northwest of Broken Bow, Oklahoma.
The public lands destined for removal will eliminate 30,000 acres of public access on the Southwest side of the WMA in McCurtain County. It is truly disheartening to see public lands being removed from the map and the associated loss of access to hunters and anglers. This certainly raises concern to those who rely on public lands to provide for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreational opportunities, who otherwise would not be fortunate enough to obtain those experiences through private land access.
How can we make a difference? If you share the same concerns with the Oklahoma Chapter BHA regarding the loss of public access due to budget constraints realized by our State Government Agencies, you may contact your State Representatives by phone or email to discuss your concerns and help advocate for the future support for State agencies such as the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. Ways you can keep advised of “what’s going on” is by following any of BHA’s social media sites on Facebook and Instagram. You may also monitor the BHA website at https://www.backcountryhunters.org/oklahoma. Additionally, we welcome you to become a member of BHA (CLICK HERE to learn more) and join with us as we strive to protect, support, and enhance our public lands in Oklahoma and across the Nation.