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04-17-2003, 05:30 PM
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Hunters lose hero status on national forest land

Is the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest turning its back on an old friend, the hunter?

Some days it can appear that way. At a board meeting of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries last month, John Bellemore, the forest's top wildlife officer, said that the George Washington/Jefferson really couldn't support the board's proposals for longer hunting seasons and more generous bag limits. Such regulations, he said, would result in more hunters and that would lead to more road damage, more law enforcement needs and more litter on national forest property.

"We are going to have to put our support on hold," said Bellemore, implying that the DGIF is saddling the forest service with more demands while decreasing its support.

Some in the hearing room were stunned. They still are. After all, the forest service and the game department have prospered under a cooperative wildlife agreement that will be 65 years old next year. The concept is that the forest service owns the habitat and the state owns the wildlife, therefore the two agencies should work together. That effort has had a major role in the restoration of deer, turkey and bear populations. The agreement has been lauded as a model, and copied by other states. It should not be tossed aside.

Officials representing the DGIF and the forest service will need to come together to resolve differences born of frustrations over funding cutbacks. At stake is the well being of 2-million acres of hunting land in Virginia.

Funding isn't the only rough spot. Hunters have been troubled over what they see as a change in the direction for the forest service that puts less emphasis on game production and our hunting heritage.

In an op-ed piece that appeared in The Roanoke Times earlier this month, William Damon, forest supervisor, praised the draft of the Jefferson National Forest Plan, saying that it successfully balances the diverse interests in the forest. Not once were the words hunter or angler, or hunting and fishing used. Damon did mention hiking, picnicking, camping, mountain biking, horseback riding and backpacking.

I am not trying to read too much into this omission. Damon simply was reflecting the forest's movement away from angling and hunting toward non-consumptive pursuits. This new philosophy doesn't just apply to recreation, but to timber management as well.

The Sierra Club, a once grand old conservation organization that has gone whacky, wants to turn the multiple-use forest into something it never was intended to be, a park. A park would have no place for logging and, in time, probably the same could be said of hunting. The Sierra Club and other like-minded groups pretty well have taken the management objectives of the national forest away from hunters. It hasn't been much of a battle, because sportsmen have rolled over and let them have their way.

As a result, national forest property no longer is the heart of wildlife populations like deer and turkey. Private property is. Grouse have become increasingly rare on the national forest and certain songbirds are on the decline.

These species thrive in a regenerating forest, the kind that is provided when trees are cut and the sunlight strikes the forest duff to stimulate the lush undergrowth that many wildlife species require for food and cover. The grouse society has reported to its members that young forest habitats will comprise no more than 1 percent of the forest under the draft plan.

The no-cut people will try to tell you that wildlife and recreation would best prosper in a forest that does not hear the sound of a chainsaw. That's simply not the truth. Wildlife needs diversity, and that includes brand new growth as well as old growth. Timber harvesting remains an important tool in maintaining the kind of healthy forest that provides diverse habitat for wildlife, not to mention jobs for people in the wood-products industry.

The draft plan calls for additional prescribed burning. It also allows for more timber cutting, but on a declining number of acres.

Supervisor Damon believes the Jefferson Forest Plan offers balance between harvest and preservation, but neither the Sierra Club nor the Ruffed Grouse Society is likely to agree. The Ruffed Grouse Society calls the plan "completely unacceptable."

The grouse society wants a balanced approach to wildlife and timber management while the Sierra Club wants to end logging. It is a battle slowly being won by the preservationists.

The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests will host an open house 6-to 9-p.m. today (April 17) to discuss the Jefferson Forest Plan at the forest headquarters in ValleyPointe Parkway located off Peters Creek Road in Roanoke County. Details on www.southernregion.fs.fed.us/gwj/ (http://www.southernregion.fs.fed.us/gwj/)