Harrisburg – A huge, if unintentionally-secret, Pennsylvania
Game Commission program may finally be coming to light.
For the better part of seven decades, the commission has been
convincing farmers, foresters, and other private landowners to
allow sportsmen to use their land to hunt and trap.
The problem with that effort – largely viewed otherwise as a
wonderful program – is that the exact location of those properties
has always been a bit of an unknown.
Commission employees knew where the farms and forests were
located. The commission mailed free Game News subscriptions to
those landowners, and often stocked their lands with commission
But getting those details to the sporting public was almost
“It was sort of a stealth program,” said Mike Pruss, private
lands section chief for the Game Commission.
That is finally going to change.
The commission is very close to completing a detailed series of
maps showing the location of private lands open to public
The properties fall under the commission’s cooperative
farm-game, forest-game and safety zone programs. Combined, they
account somewhere between 3 million and 4 million acres of private
land open to public hunting.
According to Pruss, as of Aug. 5, there were 1,801,875 acres of
private land enrolled in the farm-game program, 786,296 enrolled in
the safety zone program, and 693,814 enrolled in the forest-game
Combined, that’s more than double the total acreage of state
game lands available to hunters statewide.
“That would have ranked us second in the country last year, in
terms of private land open to public hunting,” said Pruss, who is
heading up the new mapping effort.
The commission has had hunting maps in the past, and they
identified – primarily by colored blotches – lands in the access
programs. But they were not very specific.
“We had complaints over the years from people calling, wanting
to know where these public- access properties were and the best we
could do was offer generalities,” said Mel Schake, information and
education supervisor in the commission’s southwest region
“We’d tell them to go to southwestern Allegheny County or
northwestern Beaver or whatever the case may have been and just
look for our signs. It really wasn’t very user friendly from the
point of view of hunters.”
The new maps will offer much more detail. They do not list the
names and addresses of landowners in the program, nor do they offer
phone numbers. But they do much more specifically locate individual
properties, and identify what restrictions might be in place at
Some, for example, are open to all forms of hunting. Others
might be open to everything but trapping or turkey hunting or doe
“We’re trying to make the best maps we can and offer the best
information we can for sportsmen,” Pruss said. “We’re really trying
to provide them with a useful tool.”
The mapping effort has made some landowners leery, said Rich
Weaver, federal aid supervisor and the man leading the mapping
effort in the commission’s southwest region office.
Some Amish farmers have dropped out of the program because their
beliefs forbid them from drawing attention to themselves by
specifically noting their properties on a map. Other landowners –
who worried that digital, online versions of the maps would allow
hunters to click on a property and bring up details such as phone
numbers – have dropped out of the programs because they fear being
swamped with hunters.
“In Armstrong County, where I served for 17 years, we’ve had
concerns from rural farmers who are afraid of being overrun by
people,” Weaver said.
“We’re hoping that, if they look and see that there neighbor who
stayed in the program doesn’t have any problems, they’ll eventually
come back. If hunters are courteous and ask permission to hunt
these places, they’ll be helping themselves in that regard.”
Hunters certainly seem poised to benefit from the mapping
project, even if they might not realize it. A study done for the
commission by Responsive Management revealed that 78 percent of
hunters had not hunted on private land open to the public in the
last five years, Weaver said, so they’ve been missing out on
millions of acres of habitat for everything from rabbits and
squirrels to deer and bears.
The commission has versions of its public access maps online at
its Web site, www.pgc.state.pa.us. What’s posted
represents about two-thirds of all of the cooperator properties in
Plans are to update them again in October – in time for the fall
hunting seasons – then finish them by January, according to Pruss.
Printed copies of the maps may be available for sale by next year,
but that will be an “economic decision.”
“It’s been a massive effort, but we really want to make what has
been somewhat of a stealth program into something sportsmen are
aware of and use,” Pruss said.