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Game Commission control of rural land worries legislators

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(The Center Square) — Legislators from rural Pennsylvania have been wary of expansion by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, concerned that more land under its ownership cuts into development and tax revenues.

During a Senate Game & Fisheries Committee on Thursday, they again questioned the state agency.

“Land acquisition by the Game Commission and the policies, the plans, and the procedures — this is going to be a back-and-forth conversation going forward,” Sen. Scott Hutchinson, R-Oil City, said. “Does the Commission have an upper limit on the percentage of land that should be in government/Game Commission ownership?”

PGC Executive Director Bryan Burhans declined to put a figure on it, but spoke of principles for managing wildlife and ensuring enough land gets made available to hunters.

“One key to success has been what we refer to as the democracy of hunting,” Burhans said. “Providing opportunity that’s not limited by class or income or where you sit in the status of society. We want to provide access and opportunity to enjoy wildlife.”

He laid out what he called strategic goals: acquiring land that provides access to existing game lands, buying properties inside game lands, and purchases that simplify management.

“We don’t prioritize ‘we want to get all the land we can,’” Burhans said. “What we do prioritize is the type of projects that we do look for.”

The PGC controls over 1.5 million acres of game lands and made $1.8 million in payments in lieu of taxes to localities to replace tax revenue, but they’re a contentious issues for legislators.

“The state owns so much land up here,” Cris Dush, R-Brookville, said. “The Game Commission owns more land than the entire state of Delaware. My problem is, when I had Indiana County, Banks Township (in my district), they were more than 50% owned by the Game Commission alone. Heath Township, the last I checked a few years back, because the Game Commission and the state parks owned so much, their annual revenue was $28,500. They can’t put a thing up to cover their equipment with that PILOtT— which I call pittance in lieu of taxes.”

Dush argued the PGC’s land expansion drives down revenues for local governments.

“We’re not looking to purchase the entire state of Pennsylvania,” Burhans said. “Our goal isn’t to try to purchase more game lands — except where it makes sense, where there is significant wildlife value to some of these lands.”

Rates to calculate PILOT payments increased from $1.20 per acre to $2.40 per acre with the passage of Act 34 of 2023, but the issue remains a live one.

“It is concerning to my local government officials in a huge way,” Dush said. “It’s a huge consideration and we need to have some deeper discussions about it.”