PA Bill would gut game commission's power to protect land

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Sportsmen: H.B. 2181 would gut Game Commission's power to protect game lands

Sunday, December 16, 2001

By Ben Moyer/Pittsburgh Post Gazette

In politics, as in comedy, timing is everything. But a move afoot now by a faction of state legislators and the interests that have their ear is no joke. They're cagey, and they see some serious fights looming that will pit hunter against hunter, and sportsmen against the Game and the Fish and Boat commissions. While hunters and anglers are bludgeoning one another and the commissions about doe seasons, antler restrictions, the abolition of Fly-Fishing-Only projects and cuts in trout stocking, these lawmakers aim to wrest control of use and access to state game lands away from the Game Commission.

Their tool in this maneuver is House Bill 2181, sponsored by Reps. McNaughton, Barley, Saylor, S.H. Smith, Barrar, Buxton, Creighton, Feese, Godshall, Hennessey, Horsey, Hutchinson, Lewis, Maitland, McCall, Phillips, Pistella, Rohrer, Sather, Stern, E. Z. Taylor, Tigue, Vance, Wilt and Youngblood.

H.B. 2181 would amend the Independent Regulatory Review Act of 1982, and if passed and signed, would subject any regulation dealing with "secondary" recreational uses of game lands, such as mountain-biking, horseback riding, hang-gliding or hiking to review and approval by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission. Furthermore, it would "abrogate" -- abolish -- all existing regulation meant to protect game lands from such recreational uses.

Consequently, the Game Commission, which manages the 1.4-million acre system for the hunters and trappers who paid for the land with license dollars and Pittman-Robertson taxes on firearms and ammunition, could not establish a regulation there without permission, and could not enforce any existing rules. If H.B. 2181 is enacted, and a pack of ATV quad riders feel an impulse to slop your favorite grouse cover into oblivion, the Game Commission would be helpless to stop them. Should a band of extreme mountain-bikers choose to stage a marathon past your deer stand on opening day, your local conservation officer could do nothing but offer a welcoming wave.

And if the commission wanted to stop jet-skiers from harassing an active bald eagle nest, it would have to wait for the lengthy review process to give the nod.

Those examples are why the people who passed the original Independent Regulatory Review Act intelligently left state game lands out of the labyrinth. They knew hunters had paid for the land and its care, and that the land served wildlife as much or more than it did hunters. They also knew you cannot protect wildlife in a state such as Pennsylvania without granting the Game Commission authority to respond quickly to regulatory crisis.

H.B. 2181 is a case of political sour grapes. It came about because some interests were not happy with the recommendations for regulatory change offered by a diverse committee of recreationalists convened by the Game Commission last year. That committee, made up of cyclists, equestrians, hikers and others, was charged with finding ways to minimize the damage secondary (other than hunting) uses did to game lands. Their most contentious recommendation was to limit riders of horses and nonpowered vehicles to game lands roads open for public use or "other designated routes" (motorized ATVs are already prohibited on game lands so their impacts were not considered by the committee). Supported mostly by the mountain-bike constituency, the above legislators introduced 2181 to negate any regulation that might result from the committee process, especially the "designated routes" clause.

Many people overlook the fact that secondary nonmotorized uses have always been allowed on game lands. Mountain-bikers, horseback riders (I've ridden many miles of game lands on horseback), hikers, photographers, leaf-lookers and just about anybody else who ever wanted to interact in any way with the natural world have been welcome there. In recent years, though, secondary uses have grown more intense and their impacts more obvious. To protect that for which the game lands system was purchased and maintained, the Game Commission needs authority to respond to growing recreational demands. H.B. 2181 would gut that authority.

Most hunters have nothing against mountain-bikers. But mountain-bikers did not petition the legislature more than a century ago to set up a commission to regulate them, establish a license and fees, and then pay millions of dollars for a land base and the privilege to hit the trails -- hunters did, and hunters have benefited thousands of other people and the state's wildlife and watersheds in the process. Mountain bikers and all other nonmotorized outdoor folks are still welcome, but are -- and should be -- expected to adhere to rules designed to protect the land base of their hosts the hunters.

H.B. 2181 has been referred to the House Committee on Tourism and Recreational Development, chaired by Rep. Robert Godshall (Montgomery). Hunters who object to the piracy of game lands primacy should contact Rep. Godshall and their own representatives in opposition to this bill. Godshall' s committee will have a hearing on the bill Jan. 16 at the Capitol Building in Harrisburg. To reserve time for testimony, call the Tourism Committee office at 717-783- 9835. Write to any of the legislators above at: Main Capitol Building, Harrisburg, PA 17120-2020.
 

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