Award-winning investigative conservation writer and author Beau Beasley has again written an open letter to the Virginia Game Commission appealing for action to protect anglers. Beasley broke the story on an angler being sued for trespassing while fishing in the Jackson River in waters advertised as public by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The story has garnered attention well beyond Virginia and anglers are eagerly awaiting the court’s decision in North/South Development v Crawford.
Here is Beasley’s latest letter to the Commission. To read articles on the issue by Beasley and the continuing debate go to www.beaubeasley.com
Dear Chairman Reed, October 1, 2012
Thank you for your response dated August 2, 2012, regarding my concerns for anglers legally fishing along the Jackson River. My questions were in part to help me understand VDGIF’s policy and position on this issue and what the public should expect from your agency going forward in this matter. My questions have been answered but your responses and the VDGIF white paper which was written as a result of my inquiry on the subject have generated further questions.
I understand that your agency has no ability or authority to get involved in the current lawsuit North/South Development v Crawford along the Jackson River. Further you have made it clear that you will not discuss whether you have asked Attorney General Cuccinelli to intercede on the angler’s behalf who here represents the public, because this is privileged attorney/client information. While this is certainly understandable, this is regrettable because this is the second time since 1996 that an angler has been sued for fishing along the Jackson River on property widely advertised as public by VDGIF.
I was particularly concerned by the following statement in the white paper on page 5 section 2 (a):
while much discussion has been had over the effect of a fishing license issued by the Department, in no case does a Department hunting or fishing license grant access to private property. They are instead authorizations to engage in the hunting or fishing activity in a lawful manner; the decision as to where to hunt or fish is a separate issue that must be addressed by the sportsman.
No rational sportsman believes that purchasing a Virginia hunting or fishing license means he is entitled to hunt or fish on private property. Rather, the purchaser of such a license believes it entitles him to hunt or fish on state property, or other property advertised by the state as usable by the public as long as they follow the fishing and hunting regulations written by your agency. The latter part of the statement I find particularly galling:
The decision as to where to hunt or fish is a separate issue that must be addressed by the sportsman.
This statement appears to be legalese and essentially states that while VDGIF will gladly tell sportsmen where they can hunt and fish, if they encounter legal troubles such as trespassing for going precisely where the agency advertised as public, they are on their own. How are sportsmen supposed to know where to go? I suspect few if any license holders in this state know that once they take the state at its word as to where they can hunt and fish they are engaging in what could be legal jeopardy and that doing so is “a separate matter that must be addressed by the sportsman.”
Since the beginning of this year VDGIF has issued nearly 30 press releases informing the public on issues ranging from White-Nose Syndrome of bats to warnings about not handling snakes and fawns. Yet your agency is silent on issues that have much greater import to many license holders, namely that we can’t rely on VDGIF to protect us in court for hunting or fishing in places you advertise as public. While you have posted a white paper on the Jackson River, few if any anglers would go beyond looking at the state maps you provide on line, or at the river’s access points. Given the statements above I would like to know the following:
1) Why has no mention of the current legal troubles been made public via a press release, when nearly every angler I know is confused on the issue of where they can and can’t fish on the Jackson River?
2) When the Army Corps of Engineers created the Gathright Dam, part of their Environmental Impact Statement included language that said they would create a public downstream fishery below the dam. Since 1996 two anglers have been sued and spent tens of thousands of dollars defending themselves while the state of Virginia stood on the sidelines. How can the Army Corps of Engineers have met its obligation to create a public fishery, if the public can’t go there without the fear of litigation?
3) While your agency may not engage in legal action protecting this angler, what steps have you taken to prevent other anglers from suffering the same fate on this river?
4) Is VDGIF considering putting a warning label on state signs and licenses informing sportsmen that following all VDGIF instructions as to what is public property, in no way protects them against being prosecuted for trespassing?
The public places a great deal of trust in the VDGIF, and when sportsmen purchase a license, and follow signs with your imprimatur, they assume that they are engaging in legal activity. There is no doubt that the angler being sued for fishing on the contested section of the Jackson River stood his ground because he trusted the VDGIF signs and what he was told by VDGIF staff members. If this angler loses his case, no doubt VDGIF will then be forced to change their signs. There is also very little doubt, however, that the current system uses law-abiding sportsmen as guinea pigs to find out what is and what is not public property.
Chairman Reed, in closing let me say that I realize the VDGIF is in a very difficult position and is working under constraints that may have existed long before you or your fellow commissioners began serving. I also recognize that the issue of crown grants is something that is best dealt with legislatively by the General Assembly. But until such time as these matters can be resolved, VDGIF must act to protect law-abiding sportsmen who are guilty of little more than taking VDGIF at its word. I fear without clear direction the ambiguity that revolves around the Jackson River, and now other rivers like the Hazel where crown grant ownership is being asserted, could result in depressed license sales and fear among sportsmen in Virginia.
I look forward to your response.