Caddo Lake National Heritage Act bill dies after opposition

JEFFERSON — The Caddo Lake National Heritage Act bill, proposed by law makers on both the Texas and Louisiana sides of the Caddo Lake area, has had its congressional support pulled after opposition from residents.

Louisiana legislators, U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson and U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, first announced their withdrawal of support of Senate Bill 2947 and House Bill 5957 on Tuesday, prompting Texas legislator, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, to announcement his disappointment and withdrawal later that same day.

Gohmert said the majority of the affected land would have been in Louisiana, since that side of Caddo Lake is larger than the Texas side, so without those lawmakers’ support, the bills couldn’t move forward. The bills had just recently been referred to committee in May.

“People living in the potential (Caddo National) Heritage area in Louisiana have been particularly vociferous in opposition to the proposal, and it seems they have not given fair consideration to the possible benefits,” Gohmert said on Tuesday. “As a result, both Louisiana’s U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy and U.S. Representative Mike Johnson are pulling their effort to examine further the possible benefits.”

Gohmert said Texas’ residents seemed more in favor of the bill that would have covered about 900 sq. miles of Caddo Lake land that would have been deemed a National Heritage Area under the bill.

“The people of Harrison County were willing to engage in a productive dialogue about the pros and cons of a potential designation,” Gohmert said. “While many constituents raised concerns with the idea, I cannot adequately convey how much it means to me to have so many people have enough faith in me that they were willing to wait and hear the whole story, cordially discuss their concerns with my office, and offer suggested amendments, before deciding whether to pursue it or not.”

Collins Academy Director Gary Endsley and academy founder Richard Collins had been hosting several meetings over the past weeks to inform residents about what the National Heritage Area designation from the federal government would mean for Caddo Lake, as well as to dispose of any fears concerned residents might have about the proposal. Endsley said the area’s tourism industry would have greatly benefited from the NHA designation.

“Of course we are disappointed, Richard Collins and the staff of Collins Academy have worked very hard to promote this region and try to bring opportunities to our community to help with economic and tourism development. It benefits all of us,” Endsley said on Wednesday.

“I think the timing of the release of the bill was possibly ill-conceived in that the public had little or no information in advance of the bill being rolled out, and frankly, as our public meetings showed, there was a great deal of governmental mistrust,” Endsley said. “That was a recurring theme. This is unfortunate. Due to the mistrust of some very vocal individuals, we all have lost out on an opportunity that would have benefited the region. No one wins in a situation like this, and it is my hope that if people will actually read the bill, they will realize that the benefits far outweigh the suspicion and that the elected officials will bring it up again for consideration in a timely manner, and in a manner that will better address individual concerns.”

Gohmert said in response to some residents’ mistrust, he had added language to the bill.

“We had continued to work on language that would have further ensured that the federal government could never use the Heritage Area designation to do anything the actual landowners, private and public, did not want done,” Gohmert said. “We could be certain that such a proposed law did not allow any strings and included that language in what we drafted. However, it could not be said with 100% certainty that some future Congress might not try to add strings, so I prepared language to allow unilateral withdrawal from the Heritage area, without needing the federal government’s permission, if the federal government or Heritage Area Commission ever did anything that had an undesirable effect on the land, the landowners, or any aspect of the local enjoyment or use. That would have been enforceable if anything unwanted had ever been attempted.”

Gohmert said they were also willing to cut the size of the NHA to only include land that owners wanted included, but the Louisiana lawmakers still pulled their support.

“This matter will be closed until or unless the people I represent who would be affected tell me that they want the issue of a National Heritage Area designation pursued again,” Gohmert said.

A Facebook group representing those opposing the bills called “Caddo Lake’s Last Stand” posted a message to its followers Tuesday after the announcements that read, “We are thankful for the decision of U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson and U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy to listen to our voices and act on our behalf. We also must understand as a community that this is a small victory, amidst a big battle. We cannot let our guard down. We were already told today that there is a good chance the bill will be re-introduced next year.”

The group is hosting a meeting at 5:30 p.m. today in Hosston, LA. It will be held at 14095 Oak Street in Hosston, LA. For more information, visit the group’s Facebook page

By Bridget Ortigo