Saturday, May 13, 2017

Ohio Natural Resources still interested in at least a portion of AEP Recreation lands

Understanding that it can’t buy the entire AEP coal lands pie the Ohio Division of Wildlife would at least like to obtain a sizable slice.

However, the agency is strapped enough for cash that purchasing even a few crumbs of the 60,000-acre popular outdoors recreational territory in southeast Ohio may prove daunting.

Even so, the Wildlife Division still intends to pursue buying a portion of the property from the private coal-mining/electrical power generating American Electric Power (AEP) company.

AEP has stated it wants to sell off the area in large parcels. This has generated heat of its own, along with heartburn for Wildlife Division officials.

The acreage consists of a huge chuck on land, expanding over several southeast Ohio counties and is comprised of several designated wildlife areas.  These properties are enormously popular with outdoors enthusiasts of all stripes; from campers to anglers to hunters to birders to hikers.

An effort in January to work out a deal for buying several thousand acres in a “core” section of the area failed to produce an agreement, says Ray Petering, chief of the Wildlife Division.

“We’re trying to find federal dollars which seems to have helped in AEP not selling off everything so quickly,” Petering said recently to a group of outdoors writers.

Petering also said that whatever the agency can pick up it won’t be a paltry size piece of real estate, either. Rather, any purchase would run in “several thousand acres” and not several hundred, Petering says.

“We’ve told AEP that we’re in for something,” Petering said. “The door and lines of communication are still open.”

Petering said too that his agency is most interested in acquiring land found within a core segment of the current boundaries. And any buy should include as much water-associated property as possible along with good habitat or at least property that could be developed for good wildlife habitat, Petering says.

Petering said too that any deal would almost certainly require as many as four years to complete.

“We should get something, which is better than nothing,” Petering said.

Even so, that something will require money. And given that an initial assessment paints AEP property as costing $2,000 per acre, any land-buying agreement would require a huge cash outlay.

Complicating any prospective purchase is that acreage where so-called “shallow coal” exists would be valued even higher. It is here where mineral – coal – extraction is easiest; thus, less expensive to mine and consequently more desirable to any likely commercial suitor, Petering says.

This is why the Wildlife Division is looking to partner with major national land-conservation groups and others in providing financial assistance.

And it is here where the subject of potential resident hunting and fishing license fee increases enters the picture. With fewer available dollars now hanging out in the Wildlife Fund there exists a lessened financial opportunity for the Wildlife Division to salvage what it can of the AEP property, Petering acknowledged.

“We will do what we can with what we have,” Petering said.

As for the parent Ohio Department of Natural Resources, that entity stands behind the Wildlife Division in securing AEP property while still opposing license fee increases for Ohio resident hunters and anglers.

“We do support Wildlife with regards to AEP,” said Gary Obermiller, a Natural Resources Department assistant director. “We wanted to buy the entire 60,000 acres but AEP didn’t want to go with that.”

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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