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Evicted clubs find policy off target

The Twin Rivers Sportsman's Club has been around since 1973, hunting the same leased tract in Somerset County for all that time.

Members, most of them from the Baltimore area, have done a first-rate job keeping their 900 acres neat and their hunting activities safe.

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But on Wednesday, Twin Rivers, along with about 40 other clubs with Eastern Shore land leased from the state, will be evicted.

To say the majority of the 1,700 hunt club members are upset would be an understatement.

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"We keep it up. We keep the roads passable. We pick up the litter," says Don Lippy of the 19-member Twin Rivers club. "We'd be happy to pay an increase if we could just keep our land."

No one feels good about this unhappy ending, not the Department of Natural Resources, not even other hunters who stand to gain from this.

"This is one of the most heart-wrenching decisions and discussions I've ever had," says DNR assistant secretary Mike Slattery. "But we did the best we could."

The awkward situation was inevitable as soon as DNR took ownership of 58,172 acres in five counties from a timber company in 1999 and 2000.

The largest single land deal by state government was applauded by outdoors lovers and anti-growth forces. But using public money to purchase half of the land (the other half was from a private foundation) meant lease deals for some of the 223 private clubs were doomed.

DNR officials drafted a management plan for the so-called Chesapeake Forest Lands that evaluated each of the tracts for its suitability for public use. Parcel size, proximity to other DNR properties, water access for paddlers, existing infrastructure and access were all considered when deciding which parcels would go public and which could continue to be leased.

To cover the cost of managing these new public hunting grounds, state officials decided to raise fees for hunting licenses. Groups like the 20,000-member Maryland Sportsmen's Association endorsed the fee increases in return for greater access. The state legislature approved the increase and stipulated that 29,000 acres would be public hunting land.

An attempt to slow the transition was led by state Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, president of one of the clubs, but it died during this year's session.

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As a result, 70 tracts will open this season, and 96 more will open next year. From now on, if hunt club members want to use their old stomping grounds, they'll have to share.

Twin Rivers paid rent of $4,500 annually, first to the timber company and then to the state when it assumed ownership. For hunters from the more urbanized area of the state, the lease was a good deal. Privately held land is almost always safer since access is controlled and rules are strictly enforced.

Twin Rivers installed elaborate towers and tree stands, chose shooting lanes to ensure safety and planted food plots for deer and turkey. Members built bridges over ditches and marshy areas and good relationships with the 20 homeowners in Princess Anne who border the property.

Over the past six weeks, with chainsaws and crowbars, they've scrambled to break apart and truck off all their improvements.

Other clubs affected by the evictions don't understand how the cash-strapped state can afford to give up the nearly $400,000 in annual rent. Nor do they understand why, with 312,000 acres open statewide - including 96,000 on the Eastern Shore - more public hunting land is needed.

"In many cases, they aren't using the land they already have," complains Lou Murray, who led some of the Eastern Shore opponents against public hunting expansion.

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They also can't understand why state game officials worried about keeping the deer population in check would give the clubs pink slips. Hunters who know the terrain and scout the land frequently while doing maintenance are much more effective than someone who shows up once a year, they argue.

But DNR's Slattery says those aren't the agency's only goals.

"In the end, we have 58,000 more acres open to the public, and 29,000 of those are open to public hunting," he says. "If our goal is to make hunting easier to access as part of a recruitment tool, then this is what we need to do."

Another DNR baffler

Apparently DNR now stands for Doncha Needa Republican. How else to explain the latest Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. administration addition to the cash-strapped agency's hierarchy.

Lynn Buhl, who was rejected by the state Senate last year to head the Department of the Environment because she wasn't much of an environmentalist, will become DNR deputy secretary.

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Pete Jensen, forced out earlier this month by the administration to make room for Buhl, was brought back as associate deputy secretary after someone pointed out that he was point man on a top Ehrlich initiative: restoration of Chesapeake Bay oysters and grasses.

So now the science-based agency is led by Ron Franks, a dentist and former GOP lawmaker, and Buhl, a former auto industry lawyer and Michigan environmental official in a Republican administration with a dismal record on green issues.

Let's hope she works out better than Phil Bissett and Scott Sewell, two other political appointees dumped at DNR and then removed inside of a year. Otherwise DNR might stand for Do Not Resuscitate.


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