SGL user-fee idea causes flap

Harrisburg — A game commissioner’s suggestion that a user’s fee be established for non-hunters using state game lands has touched off a bit of a controversy.

At the commission’s recent quarterly meeting, Commis-sioner Brian Hoover, of Delaware County, directed agency staff to come up with a plan to create an access permit for horseback riders, mountain bikers, hikers, birders, cross-country skiers, photographers and the like to use game lands.

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

“I think it’s time for everyone else to pay their share,” Hoover said, adding that folks who don’t buy hunting licenses should pay a user’s fee to access game lands.

While most sportsmen seem to agree non-hunters should pay to use game lands, more than a few hunters have expressed alarm in calls and letters to this newspaper and on Internet message boards that nonhunters – by paying for access – would buy influence in management decisions.

“While your proposal to have everyone pay their share to use our game lands may have good intentions, this would obviously demand representation on behalf of whomever you charge,” wrote Greg Levengood, a former leader of the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania and now an activist and advocate for the state’s hunters.

“Sportsmen shouldn’t have to give a voice to horseback riders, mountain bikers, birders, hikers and others as to how the lands purchased with hunting license dollars will be managed.

“The last thing we need is to give any more special interest groups a seat at the table, or the commission may as well be merged with DCNR [state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources].”

Pennsylvania native and longtime Keystone State hunter Ken Piper agreed. He pointed out that the only reason Pennsylvania has been able to maintain its “wonderful and remarkable public land tradition” is specifically because hunters are the ONLY paying customers.

“Sportsmen have been told repeatedly that were it not for our ‘service’ of providing free deer control, we would be seen as completely unnecessary by the non-hunting public,” he wrote in an email. “Making nonhunters pay to use state game lands is certainly a step in an unnecessary direction.”

Piper, who is executive editor  of Buckmasters, now living in  Montgomery, Ala., is surprised that Commissioner Hoover and others at the agency can’t see how paying a fee implies ownership.

“When someone pays for something, they become a customer. Customers drive product, and product producers [or service providers] ultimately bow to customers,” Piper wrote.

“Further, I can’t help wondering if charging a fee would violate the conditions under which so many generous people donated or sold land at a reduced cost so it would become part of the state game land system.”

Hoover responded that it is not his intention to give nonhunters a voice in the operation of “our” game lands. He noted that user fees and visitation permits are used by federal, state and private organizations around the world to allow use of or access to property.

“I am not quite sure why you believe that by charging a fee for entrance you get a voice in the ownership of the property,” Hoover told Levengood. “Having researched the definition of a user fee, I find no reference in the definition to ‘ownership’ or ‘representation’.”

Hoover also pointed out that, at any given time, horseback riders, mountain bikers, birders, hikers and others can purchase a hunting license and join in the ownership of “our” lands.

Perhaps surprisingly, Randy Santucci, president of the Unified Sportsmen, agreed with Hoover, although he equivocated by saying he was expressing his personal opinion rather than his organization’s concensus.

Santucci explained that he believes a game land user fee can be accomplished without opening “Pandora’s Box” and allowing non-hunter/trapper input.

He cited, as an example, the recent move by the Game Commission to charge a user fee to shooters who don’t purchase hunting licenses for shooting at ranges on game lands.

“The range permit generated $300,000, I believe, and there have been no issues,” he wrote in an email. “Essentially the non-hunters who have been using game land shooting ranges, were there, are there, and will continue to be there.

“The only difference is we now have some compensation to use for maintenance.”

Too many people – even some hunters – don’t realize the game lands are owned and maintained by hunter-trapper license dollars, and any use up to now by the non-hunting public has been a courtesy extended by sportsmen.

But he doesn’t want to see non-hunters forced to buy hunting licenses to access game lands. “I believe the user’s permit is a better idea for non-hunting public use,” Santucci said.

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