Controversial outdoor legislation marks last days of session

It’s been a busy week. There have been a lot of things happening in regard to the outdoors, particularly in Charleston where lawmakers are nearing the end of the 60 day regular legislative session. Lets recap all which has transpired.

–Legislation which would have forced the Natural Resources Commission to lower the buck limit in West Virginia from three to two was defeated in the Senate Natural Resources Committee. The majority of members of the committee indicated they were uneasy with the idea they were making game management policy when that is clearly the role of the Natural Resources Commission which acts in direct consultation with the state’s wildlife biology staff. DNR Director Steve McDaniel spoke to committee members and indicated unease since the bill could usurp the authority of the appointed commission. However, two days later McDaniel told those gathered at the Natural Resources Commission meeting in South Charleston his agency will hire professional analysts to look at the financial picture of such a change and plans to call for a motion and vote on the measure by the Natural Resources Commission later this year.

–The action came only days after the same Senate Natural Resources Committee originated and advanced a bill to allow for commercially guided bear hunting in the state. The measure was then rifled through the full Senate and sent to the House. The action brought bear hunters out of the woodwork. They showed up in droves at the Natural Resources Commission meeting last weekend in South Charleston. There were 200 to 250 bear hunters at the meeting, so many the meeting was moved to the Holiday inn to accommodate what was still an overflow crowd.

One by one bear hunters went to the microphone and directed their dissatisfaction with the bill directly toward Senator Mark Maynard (R) who chairs the Senate Natural Resources Committee. Senator Maynard, who sat on the front row, endured withering criticism during the four hour meeting. The testimony, while controlled, was definitely angry and many claimed Maynard was pushing the bill for personal gain. The bear hunters claimed in their remarks the bill would benefit Maynard’s sister and brother-in-law financially. Speaking afterward, Maynard denied the claim and said his sister and her husband are residents of Kentucky and because of the narrow wording of the measure, wouldn’t be able to benefit from the legislation. His words did not appease the bear hunters who claimed a deep distrust in the Senator.

The spotlight turned to Ritchie County Delegate Jason Harshbarger (R), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and whether he planned to run the bill.

“I’d like to run it just to hear the discussion,” Harshbarger told me after the meeting.

He put it on his committee’s agenda Tuesday evening and it was moved to a study committee, meaning it was eliminated for this year at least. If comes up again next year, lawmakers won’t quickly forget the demonstrated power bear hunters made at the Commission meeting—their passion equals that of school teachers.

–Then there was Senate Bill 676. The measure came out of nowhere, originating again from Senator Maynard’s Senate Natural Resources Committee. The bill would have required the DNR and DOH to do a lot of work mapping, cataloging and publicizing the location and condition of every roads on public lands. This would have been lands which include State Parks, State Forests, and Wildlife Management Areas. It would have also extended to federal lands and National Forests. The underlying aim seemed to be clearing the way to eventually open up those areas to off-road vehicles like modified Jeeps and pickup trucks for recreational riding. Maynard, an advocate, believed it could generate new tourism and a boost for the economy for West Virginia. The legislation advanced to the Senate floor where it was substantially carved up with amendments from Senator Bob Beech (D) of Monongalia County.

A couple of things about the legislation.

First, if you thought bear hunters brought the rage, just float the idea of four wheeling through the backwoods of places like Kanawha State Forest or Coopers Rock. There would have been an outcry the likes of which many have not seen. Allowing ATV’s and UTVs onto Wildlife Management Areas is an idea which has already been floated from time to time in recent months. The idea goes over like a lead balloon among sportsman’s groups and Governor Jim Justice is not a fan either. It would have promised to be an uphill battle at best.

Even if the bill had somehow survived into law its most fatal flaw would have been it’s illegal. The bill directed the DNR to engage in activity which would have largely involved tourism and recreational off roading. Those are not part of the mission of the DNR. The agency is funded in large part by Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson Funds. Those two federal excise taxes are narrowly focused with dedicated revenue. There are extreme rules on how those dollars can be spent. Money from those funds can be used for wildlife management, enforcement of wildlife laws, and acquisition of land for hunting and fishing. Anything outside of those very narrowly defined parameters could bring charges of diversion from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  I would be willing to bet off-road recreation research would put West Virginia in diversion. That’s a very serious offense and it could have put federal aid funding in jeopardy.

–Typically at the first meeting of the year for the Natural Resources Commission, the proposed big game regulations get all of the attention.  I wrote them up, but nobody seemed to excited about them. Furthermore, there were a considerable number of fishing regulation changes proposed.  Some are significant and I’ll have more on them in the days ahead. I feared they would be lost in the shuffle of everything which has happened on other fronts.

–Congrats to members of the Mountaineer Rifle Team winners yet again of the Great American Rifle Conference Championship. WVU’s shooters have qualified for the NCAA Championship match. For the first time in history, the match will be shot next weekend at the WVU Coliseum. I’ll have more on that next week, but I would encourage you to make plans to attend.

–Finally, I’ll be hosting West Virginia Outdoors this Saturday morning from the Mylan Park Event Center. I’ll be on hand for the annual West Virginia Fishing, Hunting, and Outdoors Sports Show. This event has emerged over the years and become the second largest outdoor show in the state. The January even in Charleston is the only one larger. Doors open at 10 a.m. on Saturday. After the show, I’ll stick around most of Saturday and hang with the folks at our affiliate station WKKW Radio in Morgantown. Come on by and see us.