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Keep Out: No Fishing

Access to water becoming a target issue for anglers

Sunday, October 13, 2002

By Deborah Weisberg

Four truckloads of garbage were hauled from the Youghiogheny River last month during Hazelbaker Recreational Services first-ever clean-up. Working the 8-mile Dawson-to-Layton stretch, volunteers recovered 30 tires, six bicycles, an E-Z bake oven, an air conditioner, and enough cans, bottles and bait tins to stuff 50 garbage bags.

"We were amazed," said Hazelbaker's Don Hasch, who provided the canoes and convinced local businesses to donate sandwiches, snacks and work gloves to the 21 volunteers.

Litter is an on-going concern for most anglers since it is the number one reason for landowners' posting property, at least in this part of the state, said Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission regional law enforcement chief Emil Svetahor. "Ask anyone and they'll tell you, they're tired of litter, of people damaging trees, chopping wood, camping out, building fires. And drinking, since alcohol leads to other behaviors."

Litter is most glaring on opening day and on popular streams. Erie is so plagued that waterways conservation officer John Bowser posts plainclothesmen along creeks. Fines are $50 plus $10 for each piece of trash -- and double that when anglers discard steelhead they have harvested.

"Big sections of Elk [Creek] got shut down when anglers trashed the salmon fishery," said Erie guide Karl Weixlmann, a board member of the Erie Steelhead Association. "It goes back 30 years and they've been closed ever since."

 
 

So far, about 119 miles of streams on private land in Pennsylvania are being improved by angling and conservation groups, such as Trout Unlimited, working with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission through its Adopt-A-Stream program, which provides limited funding and other support for enhancement projects. For information, call the commission's Habitat Management office at 814-359-5158 or visit http://www.fish.state.pa.us.

   
 

While bad angler behavior is squeezing more fishermen onto shrinking stretches of water, increased development in some parts of the state -- not Southwestern Pennsylvania, but the Poconos and the Southeast -- has also spurred postings. "Lots are smaller in highly populated areas, and people want to protect what little privacy they have," said commission spokesman Dan Tredinnick. "They may not mind a few anglers now and then, but they don't want to see dozens every time they look out their window."

Others turn their streams into pay-for-play ventures, a trend that conservationists such as Trout Unlimited state president Ken Undercoffer expects to continue. Undercoffer's group and the Pennsylvania Sportsmen's Association battled the owners of Paradise Outfitters in Spruce Creek for denying all but their customers access to the Espy Farm section of the Little Juniata. The Department of Environmental Resources ruled that the Little J is navigable water -- meaning the stream itself is open to anyone -- but the case will be decided in court.

"We had the same situation on the Little Lehigh," said Undercoffer, of a case where anglers sued for access. "The Clarion River is probably next." Navigable waters were designated two centuries ago for their capacity to carry commercial cargo. Small streams are another story and can be privately owned.

Most of the state's 83,000 miles of rivers and streams --including the 4,500 that Pennsylvania stocks -- are on private property. As long as less than a quarter of a section is posted, the state will stock trout. But as postings increase, waters are removed from the stocking list, said Tredinnick, although last year's 25 percent cut in stockings was a consequence of the hatchery crisis.

Anglers who fish big water, such as the Allegheny River, must contend with railroad companies who are cracking down on trespassers. "Conrail would pretty much look the other way, but when Norfolk Southern took over, they took an aggressive stand," Tredinnick said. "They've even made it hard for us to move some stocking trucks."

"We went to them with DCNR to discuss options, especially for getting access for anglers, but they wouldn't budge. They told property owners along the Susquehanna to get rid of private boat docks, some of which were in families for generations, and shut off hundreds of informal access points which were the only access points. Of course, they're within their rights to do it."

"We can't be out there 24/7, but we'll cite anyone we find trespassing -- or tearing down no-trespassing signs," said Norfolk Southern spokesman Rudy Husband, of Philadelphia.

Here, while anglers try to get around railroad postings to fish the mouth of Pine Creek, "the barges" in Sharpsburg, and other spots along the rivers, the non-profit Friends of the Riverfront works to find alternatives.

In some cases, even a small stretch of posted land can have an impact. One landowner fenced just a few hundred feet on an upper part of Elk Creek, shutting down one of the most productive steelhead holes in Erie. "The total amount of posting wasn't a big deal," said Tredinnick, "but the loss that posting represented was."

By contrast, an angler bought land near Walnut's heavily pressured Manchester Hole several years ago but leaves the west side of the stream open to fishermen.

"I think a lot of people don't even know they're fishing on private property," said Weixlmann. "I'm not an elistist. I'm not one of these people who says, 'Let's kick out all the bait fishermen.' But the landowners definitely have a point."

His association and others make improvements to private property for landowners who allow fishing, through the state's popular Adopt A Stream program. Trout Unlimited received $8,000 toward a $50,000 improvement of Pine Creek, in Allegheny County. Weixlmann's group has planted blue spruce trees for property owners who've found theirs chopped down, and has built fences that four-wheelers have torn up along Elk Creek. "We've talked to people and we've picked up litter," said Weixlmann. "The state moved in the right direction when it bought both sides of Twenty Mile with gill net funds. But it needs to do more."

The state's most significant land acquisiton in recent years was $2.1 million for 2 miles along Spring Creek -- the highest density major wild trout stream in Pennsylvania. But there's no money for future purchases, said Tredinnick, and the state's Conservation Aquisition Partnership (CAP) has netted just $20,000 from private donors in the past 10 years.

"We're a bit player in property ownership," said Tredinnick. "We have 32,000 acres and the game commission has, like, a million. But they have access problems, too."

Cooperative agreements with municipalities allow the state to offer services -- such as patrols by waterways conservation officers --i n exchange for stream corridor easements. "Paying landowners would set a bad precedent," Tredinnick said. "And we can't afford to pay everyone." There are few deals like the $1-a-year easement lease the boat commission has with THETA Land Company, which bought 30 miles of special regulation streams -- including one featured on a state trout stamp -- in Lackawanna and Luzerne counties.

"We're trying to work out something similar in Cambria County right now," said Tredinnick.

Weixlmann, whose interest is Erie, suggests that an Erie stamp be issued to generate funds for improved access there. Undercoffer proposes a statewide conservation stamp.

Neither would fly with the legislature, said Tredinnick, any more than a surcharge on licenses -- a tack that some states, such as Oregon, have taken with success.

Half of Oregon's land is posted and there are 6,000 miles of stocked streams. Two dollars on each $18 Oregon fishing licence pays for easements, construction of outhouses, repair of stream-side fences and driveways, and litter collection. A citizens board decides where the money will be spent.

"Litter is the obvious problem, but the access issue is more complicated," Undercoffer said. "[Trout Unlimited] supports equal access to all fishermen. We don't have tackle preferences. We just have preferences about what fishermen leave behind."

Last year, when the state floated a proposal to open fly fishing only waters to artificials on a dozen or so streams, property owners threatened to put up no trespassing signs, effectively killing the idea.

Not so much an issue are the 4,000 lakes and ponds in the state since many of the most popular, such as the Raystown, Lake Arthur and the Kinzua Reservoir, are either on state parklands or are managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

But if anglers have any recourse in preserving remaining access, it pivots on preserving relationships, said Tredinnick.

"Knock on a door sometime and ask permission to fish or thank the property owner for letting you use his land," he said. "And don't litter."

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