Game Commission may adopt user permit for game lands
Jack Lucas remembers the discovery.
As land management group supervisor in the Pennsylvania Game Commission's southwest region office, he was on a state game land in Indiana County. Mountain bikers frequently had been seen riding in the area.
That might have been OK except — in an attempt to create hazards, jumps and other challenges — they had been hand-digging holes. And not just any holes.
“These pits we found, some of them were 6 and 7 feet deep,” Lucas said. “If you'd had a coon hunter or someone going through there at night, someone could really have gotten hurt. We had to go in there with a dozer and fix things.”
That's not necessarily uncommon.
Commission officials say use of game lands by non-hunters, including everyone from solitary individuals riding a horse to hundreds of mountain bikers at a time engaged in triathlons, has been on the rise.
That might prompt a change.
The Game Commission is preparing to roll out at its next board meeting in September in Delmont a proposal that would require mountain bikers, equestrians and snowmobilers using designated trails on game lands to obtain a use permit. Plans are for the permit to cost $30. Those who have a hunting or furtaking license would be exempt from needing one.
The permit, if adopted by the board between now and next spring, wouldn't be required until the 2015-16 hunting and trapping license year, which begins July 1. But putting word out now allows time for public comment, deputy director for field operations Rich Palmer said.
There's a reason such a permit is needed, said Bill Capouillez, director of the agency's bureau of wildlife habitat management.
He said state game lands were bought by sportsmen for two reasons: to provide habitat for wildlife and space for hunters and trappers to perpetuate their heritage.
“Everything else is secondary to that,” Capouillez said.
Yet he said the commission is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars identifying and maintaining 1,328 miles of designated trails — more than enough to stretch from Pittsburgh to Miami — for mountain bikers, horseback riders and snowmobilers. The commission is repairing the damage done when those users create their own trails, cause erosion along streams or remove gates or signs, he said.
That's on top of millions spent maintaining and upgrading bridges and parking lots associated with those trails, Capouillez added.
It's not just bikers, horseback riders and snowmobilers using those facilities, he admitted. Sportsmen are, too. But Capouillez said hunters and trappers are the only ones paying for them.
That has to change, he said.
This past week, Capouillez presented Game Commission members with four options: require a user permit of anyone anywhere on the game lands, require a permit of anyone using facilities like parking lots and designated trails, require a permit of people on designated trails only or do nothing.
The board agreed to put option three on its agenda.
There has been debate about that already among hunters. Some worry that charging people to use game lands will “give them a say” in how they're managed.
Those making that argument are late, Capouillez said. The commission already is spending money on behalf of non-sportsmen, he said.
“There's already a say. It's no longer a debatable issue,” Capouillez said.
Commissioner Brian Hoover of Delaware County supports the idea of a user permit.
“I think we have failed up to this point to identify that these lands were purchased by hunters for hunters,” he said. “I think a permit is past due.”
Other commissioners aren't so sure.
Commissioner Tim Layton of Somerset County admitted the agency has enjoyed success with its range use permit. Costing $30 a year, it's required of non-hunters wishing to use the commission's shooting ranges. It's eased problems and generated about $300,000 annually for range maintenance, Capouillez said.
But it's easy to keep track of who is at a range, Layton said. It will be more difficult to police trails.
“Enforcement, I think, is going to be the key on this whole thing,” Layton said.
Commissioner Ron Weaner of Adams County isn't sure even that will work. It's clear the commission needs a fix to the problems caused on game lands by non-sportsmen, he said. But he's not convinced a user permit will raise enough money to hire the people needed to ensure compliance or handle maintenance.
“I'm at a loss to see how this permit is going to provide that fix,” Weaner said.
Commissioner Ralph Martone of New Castle said coming to an agreement on what to do will take time. The commission owns about 1.5 million acres of game lands, he said. They are often impacted differently based on where in the state they are located, he said.
Coming up with a solution that works everywhere will be a challenge, he said.
“It's going to take a lot of discussion, a lot of time and effort to get the right comments, to get the right solution,” Martone said.