Explore hiking trails, environmental issues, recreational funding challenges and trail maintenance in Central Pennsylvania with Jim Foster.
Hikers, trail bikers, snowmobilers and other lovers of trails in our state are pretty puzzled by recent developments at the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC). Last year, the PGC issued a proposal that would require non-hunters to purchase a permit to use State Game Lands (SGLs). SGLs are wild spaces throughout Pennsylvania maintained by the PGC. Keystone Trails Association (KTA), the state's hiking and trails advocacy organization, asked for a meeting with PGC staff. At that meeting, we were told that this proposal would be withdrawn and that so-called secondary users who minimally impact SGLs, including hikers and birdwatchers, would not be required to get a permit. Others, such as trail bikers and snowmobilers, would be covered, because their activity causes some damage to game lands.
We were then surprised when the PGC's latest proposal was introduced in early January. Out of the blue, the PGC proposed an outright ban on all hiking and other secondary activity during two extended periods, late September to late January, and from mid-April to Memorial Day. A permit would be required to use SGLs during all other times. The January proposal did have exceptions to the permit requirements for some heavily used trails, including the Appalachian Trail and rails to trails. But, the hiking ban and permit requirement would still apply to hundreds of the best trails in the Keystone State.
Fall scene on the Appalachian Trail in Perry County, within a State Game Land
Hikers were heartened when the PGC withdrew its proposal just before it was scheduled to be considered at its meeting in late January. The Commission said it was withdrawn to allow for further investigation, in part due to the hundreds of negative comments it had received. But, the PGC indicated that its proposal may come up again at some point.
Before the proposal was withdrawn, we asked why the PGC wanted to restrict secondary users on SGLs. The response we get can be boiled down to the following: SGLs are purchased and maintained exclusively through hunting license fees and similar sources, like the Pittman-Robertson excise tax on firearms and ammunition. Unlike state park and forest lands, SGLs are intended primarily for hunting activity, and not for secondary uses. Also, some hikers on SGLs do not respect the rights of hunters and do not take adequate precautions like wearing blaze orange.
This rationale might make sense, IF it was actually true. It is true that much of the PGC's funding and the SGLs come from hunting license fees and Pittman-Robertson money. But, there is MUCH more to the story. For starters, much of the land that makes up the SGLs comes from other sources. These other sources include hiking groups like KTA and conservation groups like Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Central Pennsylvania Conservancy, Wildlands Conservancy, ClearWater Conservancy and many, many others. Just ONE conservation group, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, has acquired and donated more than 45,000 acres of land to the PGC. These comprise 121 separate parcels and make up all or part of 29 SGLs.
One of my favorite hikes in the state is the Thousand Steps, near Mount Union in Huntingdon County. At the base of this trail is a sign that tells a great story about how KTA, the Central PA Conservancy, PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and others worked together to acquire the property and rebuild the trail. Then, we turned it over to our friends at the Game Commission for preservation.
In addition, many of KTA's trail maintaining groups regularly build and maintain trails and shelters within the Game Lands. These efforts benefit both the PGC and Pennsylvania's sportsmen. Here's just one example. The Darlington Trail is just a couple of miles from where I live in Cumberland County. When we go hiking on the Darlington Trail in the fall, I see lots of hunters up there on Blue Mountain. They are hunting on a trail that is NOT maintained by the Game Commission. Who keeps it clear for hunters as well as hikers? The Susquehanna Appalachian Trail Club, one of our affiliate members.
We non-sportsmen have a long history of cooperation with the Game Commission. We hope it will continue. Many hikers, like me, grew up in hunting families or have friends in the sportsman community. But the Game Commission's current proposal does not seem to recognize our past relationship or indicate an interest in continuing it. To us, it seems like they want to throw our great relationship away. It doesn't make sense to ban hikers from state game lands. Both hikers and hunters have a lot to lose if this happens.