Photo taken on State Game Lands

New year, new problem created by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. You might recall last year they attempted to impose a 30 dollar a year permit fee to hike on the 1.5 million acres of State Game Lands. That idea was tabled and then dropped thanks to the outcry from the public.

This year’s idea is to require free permits from non-hunting hikers. When a government body says something is free, read the fine print. In this case the fine print says hikers would be banned from the State Game Lands during all hunting seasons, aside from Sundays when hunting is illegal in Pennsylvania. This totals 130 days, including the fall period when the foliage is at its peak. Also, at some point the Game Commission could start charging for the permit.

I believe the proposal to be as flawed and unworkable as the user fee proposal, and so here is another open letter. Feel free to copy any or all of it and send it to the Game Commission before the vote on January 26 and 27. To contact the Game Commission:

Fax: 717-772-2411 (General)
Fax: 717-772-0502 (Executive Director)
Phone: 717-705-6540 (Exec Dir)

Dear Sirs,

The Pennsylvania Game Commission is researching the idea of a permit for non-hunters and non-trappers who wish to use Pennsylvania’s 1.5 million acres of State Game Lands. Along with the permit is a proposal to ban hikers from State Game Lands during hunting seasons. I believe these proposals are harmful to all outdoors people, hunter and non-hunter alike, for several reasons, which I will outline below.

Enforcing the proposed permitting of hikers 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 instead of investigating poaching or managing wildlife.
Enforcing the permit 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 permit 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.
Requiring a permit 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 require a permit 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. And it penalizes the many volunteers that work on trails on State Game Lands.

Large parts of State Game Lands are rarely if ever hunted, and a permitting scheme which proposes to keep non-hunters out during season will ban hikers from areas that never see a bow or gun. For instance, the Thousand Steps in central Pennsylvania, or the State Game Lands near St. Peter’s Village in the Southeastern part of the state. The proposal also impacts many trails and rail trails that pass through game lands – are they to ban non-hunting users for 130 days a year?
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 or use extreme caution when using them. Requiring a permit, free or otherwise, means the hiker now have a investment in the game lands, and are likely to petition for changes to suit their use. After all, they are required to obtain permission 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.

While my suggestion of hikers petitioning the permitting Game Commission to ban hunting on Saturdays is a worst case scenario, the current permitting proposal specifically mentions allowing hikers in on Sundays during hunting seasons. There is a substantial movement in favor repealing the ‘blue laws’ and allowing hunting on Sundays in the Commonwealth. Approving a permitting scheme is a setback for the goal of hunting on Sundays, as it creates one more roadblock by specifically stating hunting doesn’t take place on State Game Lands on that day. This is a slap in the face of the people the Game Commission serves, the hunters and trappers of Pennsylvania.

And speaking personally for a moment, I hike in State Game Lands. During hunting season I use extreme caution and wear a substantial amount of orange, or do not hike some areas when hunters are hunting. I do this not only for my safety but to support my fellow outdoorsmen and women who hunt. I’ve never had an unpleasant encounter with a hunter, and I hope I’ve never been one of those hikers hunters complain about. The hunters and non-hunters of Pennsylvania on the whole get along very well as they walk the woods with a gun, bow, or camera, and they don’t need a permitting scheme to place a division between them. What IS needed is education for non-hunters so they use the game lands responsibly and safely, and a permitting scheme doesn’t accomplish that.

For these and other reasons I urge you at your next meeting on January 25 to vote against any proposal to enact a permit requirement for non-hunters to use the State Game Lands, or apply restrictions for their use by non-hunters.


Neil Brennen