4,167 acres of land in Oregon County are at the heart of a dispute between state legislators and state agencies, supported by a slough of environmentalists.
That land, part of the former Pigman Ranch, is the subject of a proposal the Missouri Department of Natural Resources put forward last year to create a new state park.
The DNR bought the land using money from a settlement with the American Smelting and Refining Company –ASARCO- which paid out more than $40 million in damages in 2009 for contaminating waterways in southeast Missouri.
The Department of Natural Resources says part of that fund should be used to restore as much land as ASARCO contaminated, which is why they’ve identified the Oregon County land, even though it wasn’t directly contaminated by ASARCO. The proposals add up to more than $8 million to purchase and restore the land, leaving close to $30 million for other restoration projects.
"It’s a long ways away from where the lead mine damage was done, so in my opinion and apparently a lot of others," Missouri Senator Brian Cunningham said. "They feel the money should be spent in the area where there’s actual damage done."
Cunningham introduced a bill in the state senate to force the Department of Natural Resources to sell the land at auction. Cunningham says creating a new park rather than leaving the land in the private sector would hurt tax revenues and employment in the county, which is one of the poorest counties in the state.
"About 85 percent of that property, the taxes would go to that school down there, and it’s a very poor school district," Cunningham said.
But the other side disputes that. John Hickey is the Missouri Chapter president of the Sierra Club, and said, "The taxing doesn’t even past the laugh tax." Hickey says the county would get more money from tourism than property taxes, and the bill is part of a broader attack on state parks.
"At a certain point you’ve got to say, there’s a Republican war on state parks, and if you look at all the bills together, all attacking the state parks, all for allegedly different reasons, at the end of the day, it’s a war on state parks."
The bills Hickey cites include actions to allow ATVs on the MKT trail, and a move to cut the state parks director’s salary in half, all sponsored by Republicans.
But Cunningham argues there’s a broad array of people against the new park, including the Oregon County commissioner, a fellow Republican, and the residents of areas ASARCO contaminated. They all say the process of buying the land wasn’t transparent enough.
"It’s not ever budgeted, or brought up to the house or the senate in any way, so we were completely unaware of it until the locals got word of what was happening," Cunningham said.
So what happens if the bill passes? The land, which was voluntarily sold, would go to auction. If nobody steps up to buy it, it’s turned over to the county government. Again, the land itself has already been paid for, so unless the auction makes back the 8 million dollar price tag, it will still be a loss for the ASARCO fund. The bill has been approved by a Senate Committee.
Meanwhile, another bill Cunningham has sponsored that would change the way state departments have to communicate their intent to buy new land, has passed the full senate, and is headed to the state house.