An effort to prevent the sale of public land in Northeast Arkansas by the University of Arkansas moved forward today when a legislative bill was passed in the Arkansas House of Representatives.
House legislators overwhelmingly passed House Bill 1694, which seeks to prevent the University of Arkansas from selling the Pine Tree Research Station and the property connected to the facility to a private buyer. The bill passed by a margin of 88 yeas, one nay and two present votes.
The bill holds that the UA Board of Trustees cannot sell the Pine Tree property, located in St. Francis County, to a “private entity or individual,” but are allowed to sell to a nonprofit corporation. Selling to a nonprofit corporation would require that the property remain available for public use, including for public fishing, public hunting, biking, bird watching and hiking.
“This is a real short bill. It just prevents the University of Arkansas from selling the property commonly known as the Pine Tree Research Station in St. Francis County. They may sell the property commonly known as the research station to a nonprofit corporation organized with the purpose or mission to keep the land public and available for public use, such as fishing, hunting, biking, bird watching, all those things. That’s what it’s been used for approximately 60 years, and we just want to keep this land in public use,” bill sponsor Rep. Steve Hollowell (R-Forrest City) said.
According to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, the Pine Tree Research Station is the university’s largest station in operation, encompassing 11,850 acres in St. Francis County with 3,500 acres of tillable land and 8,000 acres of hardwood forest. The station has 250 acres of precision-graded field used for research and production and 2,000 acres of tillable land for crop production, research and demonstration.
The Division of Agriculture cites 1960 as the year the university obtained the property from the U.S. Forest Service, while the bill lists the year 1978 as the year the UA Board of Trustees acquired the property from the Forest Service.
The research station began attracting controversy when the UA Board of Trustees voted to sell 6,300 acres to a private investor, Lobo Farms LLC. This $17.5 million sale, the board said, would fund a new Northeast Rice Research and Extension Center that would be located near Jonesboro.
Because the property was originally deeded to the university by Congress, the sale requires Congressional approval.