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Access permit for game lands usage under consideration

| Tuesday, June 10, 2014, 5:12 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Game Commissioners will investigate the possibility of charging non-hunters to use its game lands.

The idea belongs to board member Brian Hoover of Delaware County. He wants agency staff to look into developing an access permit that would be required of people — horseback riders, mountain bikers, birders, hikers and others — who use the agency's property without first buying a hunting or furtaking license.

“I think it's time for everyone else to pay their share,” Hoover said.

The commission owns more than 1.4 million acres of game lands across the state. Unlike other state lands, they were purchased with revenues from hunting license sales, oil and gas leases and timber sales rather than tax dollars, commissioners noted.

Not everyone understands those differences, or realizes that game lands were purchased specifically for wildlife and sportsmen, said Bill Capouillez, chief of the commission's bureau of habitat management.

“There's a lot of activity and a lot of people who see them the same as (Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) land, state parks, state forests. But they're managed for very different purposes,” Capouillez said.

Ironically, at the board's meeting this week, two of the people presenting public comment were women seeking permission to ride their horses on parts of the game lands where they currently are not allowed.

The commission has some experience with permits for non-hunters.

In 2011, the commission started requiring people who didn't have a license to buy a $30 annual permit to shoot at its game lands rifle and pistol ranges. That generated a little more than $300,000 in revenue last year, Capouillez said.

Other agencies and other states, meanwhile, have created access permits, according to commission information. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for example, requires people who want to use its lands to buy a day-use pass, said Rich Palmer, deputy executive director for the commission.

A spokesman for the Corps' Pittsburgh District office did not return a phone call.

Creating an access permit could have consequences, said Curtis Taylor, chief of fish and wildlife for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. That state does not charge non-consumptive users to use state-owned lands, he said. The idea has been discussed at times, but it's always been rejected.

“There are pros and cons. It does give you more money for operations, of course,” Taylor said. “But if everyone has to pay to have access to that land, everyone wants access in terms of having a say in how it's managed.”

Currently, hunters and trappers determine the use of West Virginia's 1.4 million acres of wildlife management areas because, as the only people paying for them, they're the only ones “with a dog in this fight,” Taylor said.

That's been an issue in Pennsylvania before. Some sportsmen's groups, historically, have been opposed to efforts to give the commission general fund tax money for fear of giving up ownership of the game lands system.

Hoover wants to retain that control. He said that, in his vision, non-hunters and trappers would, even with a permit, be limited in where and when they could use the game lands. People such as mountain bikers would have to stay on designated trails, for example, and would have to stay away when deer season is in full swing.

Commission staff is supposed to come up with a proposal for an access permit and report back to the board, perhaps as early as its Aug. 11 work group meeting. Hoover said there have been no discussions about the cost of a permit. But he expects it would be more than the cost of a hunting license, which is $20.70.

“We're asking those other people to pay their fair share at this point,” he said.

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