Improving public access to existing public lands

Published October 1, 2000

As Secretary of Natural Resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia, I was presented with many opportunities to guide government policies. Some of those opportunities proved to be difficult challenges, while others were easy decisions to make.

One policy issue that was not difficult was the decision to promote, encourage, and support the practical use of public lands already owned by the state for use by all Virginia’s citizens before taking even more property into the public domain.

That should be an easy choice for all government officials. Yet, in the decisions Congress is now making in its deliberations over the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, this common-sense approach to public lands seems not even worthy of consideration.

Let me share with you some of the projects that were undertaken on public lands in Virginia during the time George Allen served as Governor—projects that made public lands available to and usable by citizens who are physically challenged.

Easy access for all

The C.F. Phelps Wildlife Management area is located in northern Virginia, Fauquier County to be exact. It is home to a 113-acre section made accessible for the disabled in 1996. This special facility was a cooperative project undertaken by the Commonwealth’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), the Float Fishermen of Virginia, and disabled sportsmen.

The Wildlife Management Area is owned and managed by DGIF, a state agency funded entirely by user fees, primarily from the purchase of hunting and fishing licenses by the outdoor recreation enthusiasts of Virginia. DGIF is the only state agency that receives no general tax dollars from taxpayers of the Commonwealth.

The Float Fishermen of Virginia is one of the premier voluntary associations of Virginia sportsmen, devoted to the maintenance and use of the natural resources of the Commonwealth. FFV’s commitment to wise stewardship of the resources and access for all Virginians provided a strong impetus for the group’s involvement in the Phelps project. FFV brought only manpower, but also a sizable donation to help fund the project.

The disabled hunters and fishermen who helped make the Phelps project a reality also gave of their time and experience, and they challenged everyone with their dreams. Not only will hunters benefit from the elevated hunting platforms that allow wheelchair-bound hunters and an assistant good locations from which to sight their targets, but fishermen (and women) have new platforms built on the banks of the Rappahannock River to accommodate fishing expeditions. And all these sites are tied together by gently sloping, paved trails and wooden ramps that help users traverse the entire site safely.

As one walks the trails of this special section of the Phelps Wildlife Management Area, it becomes apparent that even though it was designed for disabled hunters and anglers, it also works well for the elderly, who may have difficulty hiking steep and rugged paths, and for children not yet ready to tackle the tough trails. In other words, this special trails project offers more people greater access to the land that is owned by their government.

Quality, not quantity, counts

Wise and prudent management of the land already owned by the government is much more valuable to the citizens than spending even more of the taxpayers’ money to purchase even more land that won’t be readily accessible to all and for which resources are not provided to manage them well.

Other public facilities in Virginia were also opened to more of Virginia’s citizens during Governor Allen’s tenure, including Claytor Lake State Park, Burke Lake in Fairfax County, Smith Mountain Lake State Park, and on South Fork Holston River at the Buller Hatchery in Smyth County. At Claytor Lake and Smith Mountain Lake, public access piers for the physically challenged were the result of tremendous volunteer and private-sector participation.

Employees of a local business took charge of the Claytor Lake project and made it their own, spending countless hours, donating time and material. When the opening ceremony took place, the celebration was not just for the new pier for the disabled who would fish from it, but also to honor citizens who were committed to opening up public lands to more of their fellow citizens. At Smith Mountain Lake, it was the local power company that partnered with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Department of Conservation and Recreation to construct a handicapped fishing pier. The pier accommodates many disabled anglers eager to access the lake and the park–which their tax dollars had helped to establish.

People are our most important natural resources, and in Virginia we involved them in developing and managing our land and natural resources for the benefit of all the state’s citizens. As a matter of federal policy, we should commit to assuring that publicly owned lands are made accessible to all the people, rather than buying additional lands that are neither well managed nor accessible to most Americans.

Becky Norton Dunlop served as Secretary of Natural Resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia from 1994 to 1998.