By Evelyn Rupert
Nature lovers now have to pay to enjoy many of Virginia’s most beautiful areas.
Since the start of the new year, anyone wishing to visit Wildlife Management Areas or public fishing lakes must purchase a permit from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Previously, only people hunting or fishing needed licenses, but now the department requires everyone accessing WMAs – even day-hikers and picnickers – to purchase permits.
The department spent 60 percent of last year’s $50 million budget on the protection and maintenance of Wildlife Management Areas, or WMAs, which include several popular recreation areas in Rockbridge County. The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries prohibits activities such as swimming and motor biking in these areas to preserve wildlife habitats. Hunting is allowed on most of the lands.
The access permits are $4 daily or $23 annually to anyone visiting WMAs. Those with Virginia hunting, freshwater fishing, trapping or boating licenses are exempt, as are children younger than 17.
Dylan Norvell, a kayaking instructor in Richmond and at Washington and Lee University, thinks that only hunters and fishers, whose activities can affect wildlife in WMAs, should have to pay for access to the land.
“As a kayaker, we don’t really add or take anything from the river,” said Norvell.
W&L law student Richard Jensen, who also teaches kayaking at the university, says he understands why people might be frustrated about the permits.
“I think everyone needs to do their part, but I can see the other side of the argument,” said Jensen. “They’re already paying taxes and it’s public land, so they should be able to use it.”
Last year, license sales made up almost 40 percent of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ income. According to its website, the department could make an additional $200,000 annually from the new access permit sales. The money will go toward maintaining the land, trails, roads, boat access ramps and facilities. In July, the state raised the prices on many hunting and fishing licenses for the first time since 2006 in order to meet the fiscal demands of maintaining WMAs.
“It takes one good hurricane to come through and it can devastate those areas,” said Lee Walker, deputy director of planning and outreach for the department.
The Goshen and Little North Mountain WMAs in the Valley of Virginia span more than 30,000 acres. Goshen Pass is home to one of the most popular kayaking sites in Virginia, a stretch of the Maury River known as the Devil’s Kitchen.
Norvell said that he thinks the new fee could discourage kayakers who frequent the Goshen area.
The department’s Conservation Police patrol these areas and will ask anyone visiting a WMA to present a permit. Those without an access pass or Virginia hunting, fishing, trapping or boating license could face a $50 fine.
Walker said that enforcement will be very lenient for the first year as the word spreads about the new policy.
Permits can be purchased online, over the phone or anywhere that sells hunting and fishing licenses.
Norvell said that he does not plan to buy a pass any time soon.
“I think it’s ridiculous to charge people to paddle down the river,” he said.