Fish and Wildlife Board proposes rule that would block horses and bikes from wildlife management areas

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Barton Chronicle.

MONTPELIER — The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Board wants to continue to block horseback riding and bike riding on the department’s 87 wildlife management areas at a time when demand for recreational land use is growing.

A new proposed board rule would also put limits on rock climbing, dog mushing, photography, boating, cross-country skiing, collecting shed antlers, non-commercial berry and mushroom picking and “shooting where specifically designated.”

Those activities are and would continue to be allowed on designated corridors, but not across all wildlife management areas, according to Patrick Berry, commissioner of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The department is concerned about damage the activities may have on habitat and threatened and endangered species.

“Our properties were purchased for the conservation of important fish and wildlife values and activities consistent with those values constitute the priority uses,” Berry said. “The rule simply codifies our long-standing management practices.”

The rule is presently in its formative stage, and is expected to be voted on when the 14-member board meets on Sept. 19.

The state’s new rule for outdoor recreational uses is the latest attempt to determine what should be permitted on public lands. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also working on a comprehensive management plan, which would affect what the public could do on federal preserves such as the one in Brunswick, which were once part of the Champion lands.

Refuge Manager Mark Maghini said in a recent interview a draft of the plan could be in the public’s hands by the end of the year.

Traditional uses, such as hunting and fishing, are protected on both the federal refuge and the state’s wildlife management areas (WMAs) because of conditions attached to their acquisitions, such as the Pitman and Robinson Act of 1937. That’s the act that sets aside the excise tax on guns and ammunition for the purchase of public lands.

As more people seek access to outdoor recreation, pressure is mounting to permit uses that have been prohibited for one reason or another.

Try as he might, David Lafoe could not get an answer to his question at a recent public hearing. He wanted to know why the state refuses to allow bicycles to travel where motor vehicles are allowed to go on roads throughout WMAs.

The WMAs are owned and managed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and state biologist John Austin found himself on the hot seat as he sought to explain to a mainly disgruntled crowd who gets to do what on public lands.

The WMAs comprise 133,000 acres, which include two conservation and five fish hatcheries — the largest being the 931-acre one at Bald Hill in Newark.

Among the prohibited uses are bicycling and horseback riding, restrictions the new rule proposes to keep, much to the ire of people like Lafoe.

“I’ve been threatened with handcuffs and jail for riding my bicycle in the Sladyk,” he said, referring to the Bill Sladyk Wildlife Management Area, a roughly 9,500-acre parcel eight miles to the north of Island Pond. “Is there a reason for this?”

David Sargent of Evansville was equally miffed at the department’s exclusion of bicycles on its lands.

As a longtime member of a hunting camp that sits on state land, Sargent said he supported the state’s purchase of the land from Champion.

He could bicycle those roads before the purchase; now he can’t.

“I was there before you guys were, and now there’s a thing I can’t do,” he said, adding that prohibiting a sport that causes no noise and leaves no marks made no sense.

The prohibitions of cycling and horseback riding were easily the two most explosive exclusions among the 25 or so people who turned out for the meeting that was held Aug. 21.

“What’s the state’s animal?” asked Arlene Douglas of Morgan when she rose to address the board.

“Deer,” replied one of the members.

“You’re fired,” she replied, adding that she moved from Florida to Vermont to raise and keep the state’s official animal, the Morgan horse.

“Your proposal doesn’t sound like unity and freedom,” she said.

Douglas said she was appalled and insulted when she could not ride her horse on one of the wooded roads at the WMA in Wenlock.

Vermont Morgans helped settle the state and deserve the right to be ridden on state lands, she said.

Her outrage was joined by others.

“I’m puzzled why horses and wildlife are not compatible,” said a fellow equestrian.

Heidi Krantz of Craftsbury reminded board members that changes in the patterns of land ownership were leaving less and less land available for public use.

“It’s important to allow more access, not less,” she said.

Maghini, who manages the federal land in Brunswick, said too much access could run counter to the reasons the land was acquired — to protect wildlife and conserve habitat.

In discussing the need for a rule on state WMAs, Mr. Austin, the biologist, said the department wants to nip in the bud any potential conflict that might arise between different users.  One of the board members used the example of a mountain bike rider coming down a trail that was being staked out by a bow hunter during deer season.

The department director of wildlife, Mark Scott, noted there is a mechanism in the proposed rule that would allow a group of prohibited users, say bike riders, to petition the department commissioner for a special permit to ride through a certain area on a WMA.

Others in the crowd suggested changes that would set seasons or hours for uses that might conflict with the more traditional uses.

Sally Lafoe said there should be room for compromise in the new rule.

“This land is our land and we all can agree to use it in a responsible manner,” she said, adding that she would go along with a user fee that would be used to manage the land.

Some criticized the proposal as premature.

“Why make a rule if there is no conflict?” asked someone in the crowd.

“To reduce the likelihood of one happening,” replied Scott. And in some cases, he noted, “Everyone might not be happy.”

As the two-hour hearing came to a close, one woman said: “All Vermonters love the land but we hate rules and regulations.”

CLARIFICATION: Several paragraphs were added to this story at 9:24 a.m. Sept. 7 to clarify the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s land management rule proposal. Patrick Berry, commissioner of the department, says activities such as rock climbing and biking would be allowed in designated corridors.

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