The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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April 8, 2013

Senator looking for ways to open land for hunting

CHARLESTON — Ever since West Virginia gained statehood back in 1863, the folks living in the hills and hollows have scaled the backwoods at their will and pleasure to hunt any time they saw fit.

Times have changed. The Mountaineer isn’t free nowadays to hunt where the spirit leads.

In recent years, holders of large tracts have rolled up the welcome mat, making it increasingly difficult to find woods in which to stalk game.

Reasons are as plenty as the animals that inhabit the woods.

Some fear lawsuits from hunters who get hurt. Others point to acts of vandalism. And there is the matter of people trashing the property.

“One guy took a truckload of shingles off a roof and threw them out,” says freshman Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming.

Hall can empathize with landowners reluctant to let hunters cross their property.

Two years ago, on a family farm in Bolt, someone shot one of the cows with a bow and arrow.

“You can’t blame the landowners for restricting this,” Hall said.

“There’s a lot of crazy people who want to go out and sue somebody or throw out trash.”

In recent weeks, Hall has been getting calls about the hunting lands drying up from residents in his district. So have Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, and Delegate Linda Goode Phillips, D-Wyoming.

Hall is preparing a resolution that, even though it cannot be considered this late in the session, might prompt some dialogue over the summer.

As the session winds down and the Legislature looks ahead to interims, Hall hopes Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, will devote one committee to the study of diminishing hunting lands.

“Hunting and fishing are part of the culture in southern West Virginia and many people can’t go,” Hall said.

In his home county, he noted, about 85 percent of the land is owned by large companies.

“That’s one thing that hurts the tax base,” he said.

“These guys are paying taxes on a way smaller rate. It’s just managed land. Per acre, they pay less than somebody who has a farm or a residence.”

Given the modern tendency to lawyer up and haul a large firm into court, or the acts of vandalism and littering that often occur, Hall said such companies are leasing property to hunt clubs. Land is posted and patrolled. The hunt clubs pay for their liability protection.

This leaves the average outdoor type in the cold, since membership fees are too steep, or membership is restricted.

“And it’s private property,” Hall said.

“They can do what they want with it. It’s an issue now, because there is no place for a lot of people to go on and hunt.”

Already, the senator has taken the matter up with the West Virginia Coal Association, since much land is occupied by operators, and a lobbyist for the landowners.

“I’ve got some ideas,” said Hall, who wants the Division of Natural Resources to be part of any interims study.

“One idea is to maybe somehow designate 10,000 acres in this county, or 5,000 in that county — a few places in the southern part of the state to hunt.”

Perhaps the state could lease such land in an arrangement with the owners, he said, or the Legislature could enact a law extending immunity from lawsuits to landowners when hunters cross their property.

This approach was worked out to get the Hatfield-McCoy Trail open, he noted.

Land holders lease some property to coal companies or logging outfits, and one spot on Bolt Mountain was leased to the 911 emergency system to provide space for cell towers.

“I’m just throwing out some ideas to see what sticks,” Hall said.

“We’ll find a solution to that. It may turn out to be a really good partnership between the state and some land companies, or maybe even a coal operator or two, and the public.”

For 150 years, he noted, people came and went as they pleased unless small tracts were posted.

“But over the years, people began to sue, they were tearing up stuff and throwing out garbage,” he said.

“You can’t blame the landowners. I understand it completely.”

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