According to an article appearing in the Erie Times-News, the Pennsylvania Game Commission is researching the idea of a user fee for non-hunters and non-trappers who wish to use Pennsylvania’s 1.5 million acres of State Game Lands. I believe this is a mistake for several reasons, which I will outline below.
- Enforcing the proposed user fee will stretch Game Commission resources. Currently the Game Commission is struggling to keep up with its core activities. When a black bear went wild in downtown Easton two years ago, there was only one Game Commission officer in all of Northhampton County to answer the Easton Police Department’s call for help, and “he’s not available” was the answer the police received. This same staff now has to stop and question hikers on state game lands and cyclists on state game roads instead of investigating poaching or managing wildlife.
- Enforcing the user fee will generate bad press for the Game Commission and Pennsylvania when the inevitable citation and subsequent challenge comes up. Tourism is a major source of income for the Commonwealth and its citizens. It will look poorly to both citizens and tourists when the first prosecution of a hiker for walking in the woods takes place.
- And to be effective any user fee WILL have to be enforced, meaning the Game Commission will have to, for the first time, specifically hire officers to keep people out of the woods. We’ve come a long way from William Penn, who when laying out his “green country town” Philadelphia planned open space and public lands for citizens to enjoy, and insisted one in five acres of the colony be kept undeveloped.
- Applying a user fee helps blur, instead of making distinct, the difference between the state parks and forests and the state game lands by introducing confusion. And the situation becomes even more confused when the National Scenic Trails that pass through game lands are included. The Appalachian Trail is considered a distinct corridor from the game lands it passes through. Does a through hiker going off trail in state game lands constitute a permit violation?
- For a century the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between the hunting and non hunting users is that the the game lands when not being used for hunting and trapping are open to everyone. While it is true hunting and trapping fees are a source of income for the Game Commission, they aren’t the only income stream. And while the Game Commission does spend money to acquire land, often land is either donated to the Commission, as with the 41,000 acres the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy gave up title to over the years, or sold at below market value. This land was given or sold to the Commission under the assumption that the gentleman’s agreement mentioned above would be in place. To charge a fee to see the snow geese at Middle Creek or the elk at Winslow Hill is a violation of trust. Ditto for groups the Game Commission worked with on special projects such as the Tiadaghton Audubon Society, who built the blind and trail in “The Muck” in SGL 313.
- Part of the gentleman’s agreement mentioned above is that the game lands are game lands, not parks, and that while we who are not hunters may use them, we are not primary users, and when the hunter needs them, we stay out. Charging a user fee means the hiker and the cyclist and equestrian literally now have a financial investment in the game lands, and are likely to petition for changes to suit their use. After all, they are paying a fee to hike there, shouldn’t the Game Commission spend money on trail improvements? Shouldn’t non-hunters have representation on the Commission? I can even see at some point someone saying, “Fall is a wonderful season to hike and ride – do the hunters need EVERY Saturday for deer?” This proposal promises to be a disaster to the hunter and trapper; for the occasional problems non-hunters cause them, they’ve not had to compete with them for Game Commission resources or had a voice in managing the game lands.
- Speaking of resources, much of the Game Commission budget goes for wildlife studies, hunter education, managing the elk and deer populations, and other items that don’t benefit the non-hunter. Its not proper that someone who simply wants to walk the land should pay for these programs.
For these and other reasons I urge you at your next meeting on August 11 to vote against any proposal to enact a user fee for the State Game Lands.