Commission works to protect waterways

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, which maintains waterways, wants to attract more people to fishing and keep the state’s waters open and available for fishing and boating.

Commission Executive Director John Arway, District Commissioner William Worobec and Northcentral Region Conservation Officer Emmett Kyler met with the Sun-Gazette on Friday to talk about their efforts to promote fishing, the commission’s role in protecting endangered species from gas drilling and efforts to diversify the agency’s income, which receives nothing from the state’s general fund and relies heavily on fishing licenses for revenue.

“We’ve never been in the oil company franchise tax, and we’re working very hard to get that in the transportation bill,” Arway said. “We’ve been in the liquid fuel tax legislation. When we ask how much fuel you’ve used in your boat for the last two years, we’re reimbursed through that tax, at about $1.6 million per year. Getting in this bill could mean $3 million a year, to upwards of $6 million a year down the road.”

Should the Commission get franchise tax monies it would allocate those funds for the first five years toward repairing “high hazard dams” that need attention, Arway said.

High hazard dams are those that hold back waters near places where people live in a floodplain.

When one of those dams is deemed unsafe, a lake might have to be drained until the repairs can be made, which happened to Colyer Lake in Centre County earlier this year.

“Imagine the uproar if we had to drain Rose Valley Lake,” Worobec said. “Everyone would sell their house.”

Gas drilling impact fee monies have been allocated to the commission for its role in issuing permits for drilling wells.

“We get $1 million off the top in perpetuity,” Arway said. “When there’s a stream crossing or a well permit in an area that possibly has endangered species, we have to do the work on that.”

The Fish and Boat Commission is responsible for supplying biologists who track the habitats of rare fish, reptiles, and other aquatic species. They supply a database of possible habitats kept by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, which helps determine where wells can be drilled, as well as other types of development.

“There are many, many miles of water we’ve never assessed,” Arway said. “The reason is not that we’ve been negligent, it’s that there are many isolated mountain trout streams that have never been at risk, and now they’re at risk with (gas drilling).”

The Commission has recently started supplying grants to college biology departments in exchange for their help in assessing these waters, including those at Lycoming College and Susquehanna, Mansfield and Lock Haven universities.

The Commission’s primary raison d’etre remains “bringing people and water together,” Arway said, and they must compete with all the distractions of modern life.

Efforts to increase the number of anglers in the state in recent years have included promotions at professional sports events, a “sweepstakes” where certain tagged fish can win those who catch them money and prizes from Cabela’s, and a youth mentorship program they tried out this year in the southeast district where children under 12 could come to a dozen stocked lakes and fish with a licensed adult a week before trout season started.

“If we don’t reconnect people with the outdoors and all that it may stand for, the outdoors may not have proponents to take care of it,” Worobec said.

“We sold 850,000 licenses last year,” Arway said. “That’s remained fairly steady since we stopped raising fees in 2005 – we sold 1.2 million in 1990, and the rate of decline increases by the increase in license fees. We don’t want to drive people from the sport. We want to find different income and get people back into the fold, get them fishing again.”