The Peace of Wild PlacesNov 01, 2020 12:30PM ● By Lilace Guignard
When I moved to Tioga County with my husband and fifteen-month old son in 2005, I knew nothing of state game lands. I just knew there was all this public land around the university he’d come to teach at, most of which had very little signage. I couldn’t find a trail map. It felt like I wasn’t wanted there, walking with my dog and child. Everywhere else I’d lived the signs practically begged me to walk or bike.
At first I assumed this was because I wasn’t from around here, and locals liked to keep things word-of-mouth. Then someone explained that the land off Carpenter and Firetower roads, the places with the gates that had yellow keystone-shaped notices of “Closed to All Motorized Vehicles,” were state game lands. Their use by hunters was prioritized. Now I felt excluded for other reasons.
We were given some deer meat that first year, which was much appreciated by our wallets and our taste buds. We talked to our new friends who did hunt. And every now and then we’d talk about how we’d like to go hunting with our friend Thad, but where would we even start?
Then my toddler became a teen who wanted to hunt.
Tioga County Game Warden Rob Minnich grew up in Berks County, and his father would bring him north to hunt. Learning to hunt is one thing, but finding a place to go can make it seem impossible to start if you haven’t been raised doing it. Without public land, townies like me or city folks wouldn’t have a place to hunt. But, as I came to find out, the story of how game lands came to be is really a story of conservation.
Back when the Pennsylvania Game Commission was established in 1895, it was because the Pennsylvania Sportsmen’s Association pressed for better protection of dwindling wildlife populations. In 1890 our deer had been close to gone, and many other species were scarce. First came game protection agents—not particularly well-received by most hunters. Fourteen were shot at and three killed in one year. Then, in 1905, game preserves were set aside in state forest land.
Next, the commission requested a law requiring hunters to purchase licenses (for one dollar). In 1920, the resident hunter license fees paid for 6,288 acres in Elk County, the first land purchased for a game preserve. Over the next five years the Game Commission acquired 86,000 acres. By 1927 hunters paid a two-dollar fee, and Pennsylvania was nationally recognized for conservation efforts that included restocking beaver from Canada, quail from Mexico, and cottontails from Kansas and Missouri. (Can you imagine needing to import rabbits?)
Now, one hundred years later, there are almost one-and-a-half million acres of state game lands. Without them we wouldn’t have been able to restore the whitetail population or grow the elk population, reintroduced from the Rocky Mountains, as quickly and fully as we have. Our extensive state forest and park systems have certainly helped, as have the federal public lands.
But Rob reminds me there’s a distinction. “DCNR and the Game Commission are different agencies, managed and paid for very differently.” He explains that game lands are almost entirely supported by hunters and trappers through license fees and a federal tax on arms and ammunition. No money from the state general fund goes toward them. So (unlike, say, state colleges) the state legislature can’t decide one year to underfund game lands.
Game lands have a single-use management mandate. According to the Game Commission, “The primary purpose of these lands is the management of habitat for wildlife and provide opportunities for lawful hunting and trapping.” So, since hunting pays for them, hunting gets priority—but within regulations created with the health of wildlife populations and safety of humans in mind.
Now I understand why I felt less welcome on game lands than I did in the Hills Creek State Park. Their swim beach and playground clearly catered to my type of use. But not being given priority is not the same as being unwanted. Only about thirty-five percent of game land use is by hunters, and most game lands are open for general use year round. (No ATVs, though.) But wildlife takes precedence there, and the lack of signs, easy access, and crowds makes it a great place for those who want to walk in the woods and look for wildlife and signs of their activity, with or without a bow or firearm. Wearing orange isn’t much to ask when about seven million is spent each year to improve wildlife habitat.
Rob tells me the sale of hunting licenses is up from last year, probably due to the virus. I have a feeling the game lands are going to help a lot of folks this year find the “peace of wild things,” like the poet Wendell Berry says. The poem describes how I was feeling last April when COVID-19 made me “...wake in the night at the least sound / in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be...”
My son, who’d been looking forward to spring turkey season, was bummed. The previous April, one of his mentors had taken him hunting on youth turkey day, staying overnight at a camp. But with the social distancing restrictions, Gabe was going to miss it.
Just in time, I realized that because I’d completed my hunter-trapper education certification and gotten a license, I could take him. “I may be the adult,” I told him, “but you’re the mentor.” I pulled up a map of Game Land 37 and said, “You tell me where to go and when we’re leaving.” I drove and carried the shotgun (as the rules dictate), but otherwise did as I was told.
He led us in along a creek and then up the hillside. On a bench most of the way up a ridge, where several white oaks had dropped their acorns, I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with my son while he had conversations with gobblers. He even got one to come into view and fan, all the while a hen was crying, “Jolene, don’t take my man.” Toggling between the hand-held call and his shotgun is probably what gave us away.
Thanks to state game lands, for five hours we felt small in a big world, instead of big in a small house. Thanks to state game lands, my son and I, to paraphrase Wendell Berry, rested in the grace of the world and were free.