Not long ago, I wrote about the need for hunters to wake up in light of various issues facing them and how the outlook for the future of their sport may not be that rosy. Many us have been watching reports such as those published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that show the number of hunters has been declining, indicating the need for action to reverse the trend.
I've also written about the R3 program for hunting, but to refresh, those three Rs are for: Recruitment, the active recruiting of new hunters; Retention, taking steps to make sure we keep the hunters we have; Reactivation, seeking those who have been hunters in the past and bringing them back into the fold.
R3 is a vital program and I applaud it, but all of the hunter advocate programs, enthusiasm and good will in the world won't matter if we don't have one basic thing needed for all hunters, and that is a place to go hunting. Hunter access to land is a topic that has been on the radar for several years as more and more land is taken up by private developments and the growth of residential areas.
Gone are the days when you could stop on almost any farm or expanse of huntable land and easily get permission to hunt. Even worse, much land that is used for hunting has been taken up by leases — you can hunt there, but you are going to pay for it.
All of this brings more and more focus on public hunting grounds around the country — national forests, state wildlife management areas and state forests and some of the places the public relies on to have a place to hunt here in West Virginia. There are thousands of these acres in the Mountain State where you can hunt and no one can say boo to you, as it should be.
However, there is a bill being considered in Congress called the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Designation Act (Senate Bill 2555), which if it becomes official would change the designation of four areas along the New River in Fayette County, West Virginia, and give them the same status as a national park. One of the things that means is no hunting. I originally intended this column for only the readers in the potentially affected area, but it dawned on me that this issue affects all of us as hunters, no matter where we live in the United States of America.
Some of the areas outlined to get no hunting status may not be much of a problem for hunters, but the heart of the matter is this: If the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve Designation Act is signed into law, more than 4,385 acres will be taken from hunters, and YOU, the hunting public, will not be allowed to hunt there ever again.
If the last line of that paragraph is OK with you and you are a hunter in West Virginia, then shame on you. If you think because it is not in your backyard it doesn't affect you, shame on you again. This is a hunter access issue, and it affects all hunters and fishermen, no matter where you live. If you have never hunted in the New River Gorge and don't think you ever will, it still affects you as a hunter.
The effect this will have on hunters around the Gorge and the collateral damage it can cause is mind-boggling. Where else could you go for a multiple-day hunting experience — floating the river, camping on the shore and walking the sometimes steep but not inaccessible tram roads that line the inner walls of the New River Gorge? Day trip possibilities are numerous because hunters can park at various access points and hunt the Gorge to their hearts' content.
Why? Because it's yours — it belongs to YOU. If Senate bill 2555 passes, you, your children and their children can kiss all of this goodbye as hunters.
There are many other issues some in the area are concerned about that most of us don't consider. Some see this as a start for a larger program in which the U.S. National Park Service will initiate tighter controls of the area, including entrance fees for access and permits for various activities such as floating the river and commercial services including hunting and fishing guides. Don't think this will happen? Ask some of those that use the various western rivers on U.S. National Park Service land and see what they say.
Advocates of this bill say status as a national park will bring much-needed tourism to the area. We have heard this before. What hunters should be asking is whether the chance of some tourism is worth losing almost 5,000 acres of public land. When the New River Gorge National River was designated for protection by the U.S. National Park Service in 1978, local residents were assured this land would remain open to hunting. Now it seems some think they have a better idea.
Do you think this only affects you if you live in the immediate area? This public land belongs to you no matter where you live in America.
A U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources field hearing to discuss the matter will be held at 9:30 a.m. Saturday in the Governor Hulett C. Smith Theater at 1 Tamarack Place in Beckley, West Virginia. Both of West Virginia's senators, Joe Manchin and Shelly Moore Capito, are scheduled to attend, and I am told public comments will be allowed.
If you are a hunter, I encourage you to be present at this meeting and make your voice heard.
If you remain silent on this, you forfeit all rights to complain later.
Will hunters wake up to this latest threat to public hunting? Time is running out.
"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.