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Boaters may need to help bail out sinking commission

| Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

You can't really call it the other shoe dropping because many more shoes — perhaps on an Imelda Marcos scale — are sure to follow.

But the fallout from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's budget crunch continued this past week.

Executive director John Arway and staff members met with the commission's boating advisory board to roll out the idea of requiring the owners of non-powered boats to register them with the agency. Currently, only motorboats need to be registered. Owners of canoes, kayaks, rowboats and sailboats need a launch permit to use a state park lake or commission access, but can otherwise float for free.

The commission has decided that's not fair.

The popularity of paddling in particular has grown “exponentially” over the past decade, said Laurel Anders, director of the commission's bureau of boating and outreach. Last year alone, nearly 233,000 Pennsylvania households reported using a canoe or kayak, she said.

Those boaters benefit from things like water trails, boater handbooks, navigational aids, boating safety education, and the services of waterways conservation officers, so they need to chip in financially, she added.

“We have to look at what we can do in those areas to boost revenues coming into the boat fund,” Anders said.

It's estimated the idea could net $1.3 million annually, so the agency is shopping the idea to state lawmakers.

Driving the issue is the commission's financial situation. It has to trim about $9 million from its budget over the next four years to accommodate mandatory medical care and pension costs passed down by the federal and state governments, respectively, and to cover contractually mandated payroll and benefit expenses, Arway said.

It's already planning to save $2.1 million by closing two hatcheries and stocking about 750,000 fewer trout a year. It will save another $1 million by not training any new conservation officers, even at the expense of leaving vacant districts unfilled.

That leaves $6 million in cuts yet to find.

Moving forward, additional hatcheries may have to be closed, even if that's “catastrophic” for fishermen, said commissioner Len Lichvar of Somerset County. Also possible are cutbacks in maintenance at launches and access areas — including the removal of portable toilets — less money for dam repairs, and the end of grant programs, he said.

If anglers and boaters don't push lawmakers to find the commission new money, tough times await, Arway said.

“You're going to get a lower level of service for the same amount of money just because other bills are coming due,” he said.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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