Hunters’ Rights Trampled in Central Pennsylvania
Story and Photos by Mark Nale
Sunbury, Pa.—Three hunters slowly walked through the chest-high goldenrods and brambles—wet from the rain that had fallen earlier in the morning. The weedy cover was interspersed with aspen, hawthorn and crabapple trees—perfect woodcock habitat.
Beep … beep … beep … sounded a collar-mounted sensor—one that alerts hunters if their dog is on point in thick cover. Thunder and Molly held their point as the hunters closed on the dogs’ location in a patch of blackberries.
The ground was littered with “chalk”—the fresh droppings of woodcock—and the damp air and wet vegetation held the bird’s scent. Two of the hunters eased towards the steady German shorthairs, but no woodcock flushed. Seconds later, Don Steese, the third hunter and an outdoor columnist for The Daily Item, flushed the bird 20 yards away. It was our seventh flush and Steese, a far better shot than I, fired his side-by-side and the woodcock dropped into thick cover about 30 yards away.
It soon became apparent that the combined eyesight of three aging hunters was not going to locate the downed bird. Fortunately, the sensitive nose of Steese’s dog Maggie retrieved the woodcock a few minutes later.
Steese and I were the guests of avid hunter, conservationist, and hunting rights advocate Dave Kaleta of Shamokin, Pa. We were hunting on part of a large tract of land—about 6,500 acres—owned by Northumberland County, Pa.
Earlier in the day, we had met another woodcock hunter on the county property—Charles Doebler of Northumberland. Doebler had braved the rain that morning for the same reason that we were there—this would likely be the last day that anyone could hunt woodcock on the property this fall—maybe ever.
Anyone, that is, except for Kaleta.
Sadly, with a 2–1 vote of the county commissioners later that day, no one will be able to hunt small game, deer or turkey on the property until the beginning of archery bear season on Nov. 12.
Why is Kaleta the exception to the rule? He is suing the county for violation of the state’s sunshine laws and his first amendment rights, for earlier this year the commissioners ordered Kaleta—just him—to stay off of the property.
In September, Northumberland County Judge Charles Saylor approved Kaleta’s request for an injunction that stops the county from banning him from hunting, scouting, dog training or walking on the property while his lawsuit proceeds. However, as a result of the ordinance adopted on Oct. 23, all other hunters are banned, effective immediately.
Kaleta and other conservationists have invested much in this piece of county property. He has coordinated and helped with trash cleanups and the planting of 45,000 trees and shrubs on this public land. As we hunted, Kaleta often pointed out specific hawthorns or crabapples that had been planted by sportsmen and women. In 2012, Kaleta was honored by the Eastern Sports Show with their Humanitarian Outdoor Achievement Award, largely for his work with Habitat for Wildlife, Inc., on this county property.
Needless to say, Kaleta is quite upset with the county’s decision to bar hunting—any hunting—for most of the year. Much of the land—more than 6,000 acres—is becoming the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA), primarily an area for the rough-riding of off-road vehicles, such as ATVs and dirt bikes. The commissioners hope that the AOAA will be an economic spark to help ignite this depressed area.
“I’ve worked on that property cleaning up discarded tires and other items and this is just sad,” noted hunter Kathy Davis. “Dave [Kaleta] has put his heart and soul into improving this piece of formerly-mined land. The commissioners’ recent decision is just a breach of the good faith that Dave established with the county when sportsmen started improving the property.”
At least six men, including Kaleta, and two women addressed the Northumberland County commissioners during their meeting in Sunbury on Oct. 23. Each one of these individuals publically asked for clarification of the policy governing this property and requested that the commissioners vote against the ordinance closing the property to hunting. There were no public copies of the policy or ordinance that was voted on that day. Unfortunately, after hearing from several individuals in the meeting, I gathered that this was business as usual for Northumberland County.
Patrick Bendas of Kulpmont, Pa., an ATV rider and avid hunter, explained to the commissioners that a lot of effort goes into hunting and scouting before the seasons. Bendas said that he has been hunting on that property for 53 years.
“I’m out on that property frequently. There is a lot of preparation that I usually do prior to the actual hunt,” Bendas said. “Why do you have to eliminate the best part of archery season by closing the property?”
Another hunter, Richard Post of Shamokin, told the commissioners they were “pushing for big money” and “pushing little local people out” by insisting [through established policy] that anyone riding ATVs on the property or even taking a walk will have to be in groups of six or more and be part of an organized group. The fine for a violation will be up to $600.
During the meeting, Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy repeatedly cited liability as the major concern for closing hunting on the property. Nonetheless, they are allowing hunting between—and only between—the beginning of the black bear archery season (which typically begins in mid-November) and the end of the late archery deer season (which typically ends in late January).
That means the property will open again on Nov. 12 for the archery bear season and close again after the late archery deer season ends Jan. 26, 2013. Under this policy, spring gobbler, early archery deer, and early small game hunters are essentially all out of luck.
The woodcock will likely be gone by mid-November, having migrated south for the winter, so woodcock hunting, thanks to this new policy, is effectively closed, too.
I sat there in the meeting wondering how the county’s liability would be any different come bear season. To the outspoken Kaleta this is illogical because the alleged liability would be the same during any hunting season, so why not allow hunting during all of the seasons? According to Kaleta, Pennsylvania’s Recreational Use of Land and Water Act protects people and municipalities who open their land to public use.
When Kaleta tried to explain this at the meeting, Commissioner Clausi attempted to shout him down and told him that he had already had his time to speak.
In addition, according to attorney Debra Wolf Goldstein, counsel to the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, Pennsylvania’s governmental immunity statutes—the Tort Claims and Sovereign Immunity Acts—also shield municipalities and commonwealth agencies from such lawsuits.
As another slap in the face to sportsmen and women, by policy, even during the “open” hunting period, hunters are not even allowed to park on county property. According to Kaleta, off-site parking is at a premium and often far away from the better hunting areas. Keep in mind, this is the commissioners’ written policy, even though taxpayer dollars are being used to construct new parking areas and trails on the property as part of the AOAA.
To Kaleta, all of this makes no sense. He asserts that Commissioner Clausi is pursuing a personal vendetta against him because he is suing the county. Of course, Clausi claims that there is no grudge or vendetta against Kaleta.
One commissioner, Rick Shoch, validated Kaleta’s claim.
“If you are looking for this to make sense, it doesn’t. I believe the rapidity with which this policy [less than two weeks] was drafted and adopted is indicative of both Mr. Clausi’s ongoing vendetta against Mr. Kaleta, and his utter disregard for the hunting community,” Shoch shared in an interview following the commissioner’s meeting on Oct. 23.
“I think that banning all individual or small group hunting, as well as other individual activities, on 6,500 acres of land during 10 months of the year is totally unnecessary,” Shoch said. “With a little thought and discussion with hunters, hikers, bikers and others, these activities could be allowed year-round in a manner that is totally compatible with ATV use of the AOAA property.”
Kaleta, who by court order is the only person allowed to hunt there prior to Nov. 12, wants other hunters to have less restricted use of this public land, too. To that effect, Kaleta’s attorney filed a new motion in an attempt to force the county to open the property to more hunting.
“This doesn’t affect me,” Kaleta explained. “I would just like the commissioners to take a step back and allow hunters and all of the residents of Northumberland County to continue to use this property.”
A copy of Northumberland County’s policy for the new AOAA property can be viewed by clicking here.
Mark Nale, who lives in Pennsylvania’s Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the PA Outdoor
Writers Association. He can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com.