What the Pennsylvania Game Commission isn't sure it wants to sell may require people to take for free.
The agency has been wrestling for months with the idea of requiring horseback riders, mountain bikers and snowmobilers who use state game lands to buy an access permit. The idea has split staff, board members and hunters.
Some have said they want a permit, with the money going to pay for damage those groups are causing to roads, bridges and trails. Others have said they don't want a permit, fearing that taking their money will give them a stake in game lands management.
A mandatory free permit — which would provide information on who those users are, without giving them a financial stake — might be the answer, some now believe.
“I don't know, maybe that's the way to go,” said executive director Matt Hough. “I kind of like that idea.”
The idea seemed to gain some traction at the board's recent work group session.
Bryan Burhans, deputy executive director of administration, said the commission already has begun addressing the issue of “secondary use” of game lands in some ways.
It's working to standardize the signs it puts up, identifying where trail riders can and can't go — even though many of those signs are stolen, sometimes within 24 hours of being posted, he said. It's also ramped up law enforcement efforts to keep people on designated trails, started shutting down unauthorized trails where appropriate, and begun looking at ways to educate the public about where it can and can't go on game lands — and when.
That last initiative involves updating the commission's website. It lists trails open to things such as snowmobiles, but some of that information is outdated, said Steve Smith, acting director of the commission's bureau of information and education.
“We don't want an individual to have to be an expert on the game lands to know where to go to get to a trail,” Smith said.
Brian Hoover, commissioner from Delaware County and the loudest proponent of a permit, said making one mandatory, even if free, would at least give the commission the opportunity to provide trail users with rules and regulations regarding their use. That's key, he said.
“It's just about information, for me,” said commissioner Tim Layton of Windber.
However, commissioner Ron Weaner of Adams County wondered how the commission planned to make sure trail users on game lands had a permit. If wildlife conservation officers in the field aren't going to spend more time checking those people than they do now, no permit will likely make much difference, he said.
Commissioners ultimately asked staff to come back with some specific recommendation in writing on whether to offer a permit at all, and if so, whether it be made free. They are expected to provide that by the board's next meeting in January.
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