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Proposal: Require Permit for Recreational Riding on Game Lands

Recommendation would have no impact on hikers or birdwatchers, and there are many ways to comment.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the possibility a permit soon might be required to use state game lands.
And at meeting next month, the Pennsylvania Game Commission formally will consider adopting such a permit, which would not be required for anyone who holds a valid hunting or furtaker’s license.
But there’s an important difference between the proposal on the table and what you might have heard about it.
Namely, the permit being proposed would be required only for those riding bicycles, horses or snowmobiles on designated trails on game lands. Others, such as hikers or birdwatchers without a hunting or furtaker’s license, would continue to be able to use game lands in the same manner they do now.
A study into the need for a game-lands use permit concluded that low-impact users like hikers and birdwatchers typically don’t cause the types of damage to game lands – and associated repair costs – that the permit fee would help offset.
That’s why the recommendation from the Game Commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Habitat Management was narrowed to apply only to specific uses on designated trails.
The Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners will consider the recommendation at its regular meeting to be held Sept. 22 and 23 in Delmont, Pa. The board is scheduled to hear public comment at the meeting, limited to five minutes per person, beginning at 8:30 a.m. If a vote is taken, it would occur on Sept. 23.

Hunters fund game lands
Many uses of game lands take a toll that requires upkeep.
Driving on game lands roads, parking in lots there and using designated trails – even in the best conditions – results in some wear and tear.
Historically, the state’s hunters and trappers have shouldered those maintenance costs, as well as other costs associated with game lands. Unlike state or county parks, the state game lands system was created and is maintained almost entirely with sportsmen’s dollars, derived in large part from the sale of hunting and furtakers’ licenses.
Game lands are managed to improve wildlife habitat, and create hunting and trapping opportunities. The use of game lands by other outdoor enthusiasts long has been permitted, though activities not related to hunting and trapping are restricted during hunting and trapping seasons, and certain uses might be prohibited on some sections of game lands.
Recreational horseback riding, bicycling and snowmobiling are permitted only on designated trails on game lands.
However, there often are other trails on game lands that, even though they are not designated, are used frequently for recreational riding. In some cases, it might be difficult for a rider to distinguish a designated from a non-designated trail. Signs posting trails as being off limits often are torn down, or just ignored.
And the damage to wildlife habitat from undesignated trails, and the upkeep costs of designated trails, both can mount very quickly.

Money spent on trails
There are more than 1,328 miles of designated trails on game lands to accommodate horseback riding, bicycling and snowmobiles.
That’s about the same distance you’d cover if you walked the Pennsylvania Turnpike from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and back – twice. Or, if you’d rather, you could walk from Harrisburg to Florida and cover roughly the same distance.
In reviewing recent spending records, the Game Commission identified about $230,000 in known costs over the past three years associated with trail maintenance and signage. Other projects to build or maintain game lands roads, parking lots or other infrastructure – all of which benefits trail users – topped $4 million in less than three years. Trails also serve as rights of way, meaning they create areas that must be excluded from revenue generators like timber sales, accounting for the potential loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
Damage to trails due to horses, bicycles and snowmobiles can be considerable.
When the ground is saturated, horses can leave hoof prints 6 inches deep. And in areas with heavy traffic, or that stay wet most of the time, the damage is even worse. It’s no different with bicycles and snowmobiles, which also can damage habitat and infrastructure and create the same type of erosion and sedimentation concerns, at ford crossings and elsewhere.
In the worst cases, damage associated with trails threatens the very purpose of the game lands, and conflicts with the concept that recreational opportunities on game lands should come at no compromise to wildlife habitat or hunting or trapping opportunities.
The permit being considered would seek to better regulate riding on designated trails, thereby mitigating that impact as well as raising revenue for associated maintenance costs.
Given the Game Commission’s duty to mitigate damage caused by uses not related to hunting or trapping, a lack of action might also jeopardize the receipt of future Pittman-Robertson funds, which are derived from a federal excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition, then doled out to the states for habitat restoration and other uses.

The permit
Under the recommendation proposed, the privileges to ride horses, bicycles or snowmobiles on designated trails on game lands would be included within the existing State Game Lands Shooting Range Permit, commonly called a range permit.
Range permits cost $30 and are available for purchase online through the Outdoor Shop at the Game Commission’s website. Range permits are effective from June 30 to July 1, mirroring the timetable for hunting and furtakers’ licenses.
Of course, those who hold a valid hunting or furtaker’s license will not be required to obtain a permit to ride horses, bicycles or snowmobiles on designated game lands trails. They receive those privileges when they purchase their licenses.
If the recommendation is adopted, and a permit becomes required for others to use designated trails on state game lands, the name of the dual-purpose permit will be changed to “State Game Lands Permit.”
The permits would only be required for those 16 years of age or older.

Opportunity to comment
Those wishing to comment about the proposal can do so at the Board of Game Commissioners meeting on Monday, Sept. 22 in Westmoreland County. The meeting is to be held at the Lamplighter Inn, 6566 William Penn Highway, Delmont, Pa. 15626.
Doors open at 7:45 a.m. the day of the meeting and public comment begins at 8:30 a.m. The commissioners may vote on the proposal during the meeting’s second day Sept. 23. The Sept. 23 meeting is scheduled for the same location and also will start at 8:30.
Comments also may be submitted in writing. The easiest way to submit a comment is by email sent to pgccomments@pa.gov.  Comments also can be mailed to the Game Commission. Address the envelope ATTN: Game Lands Permit, Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797.
Comments received will be shared with the commissioners.
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