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Originally published November 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 10, 2007 at 7:31 PM

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Irresponsible hunters causing landowners to close access

It took years of mounting frustration, but Ken Williamson finally had enough. And state wildlife officials have reason for concern, because...

Yakima Herald Republic

YAKIMA, Wash. — It took years of mounting frustration, but Ken Williamson finally had enough.

And state wildlife officials have reason for concern, because he's nowhere close to being the only landowner feeling that way.

Williamson owns about 280 acres straddling State Route 410 between Naches and the Nile Valley. It has long been a prime area for hunters, and even more so for anglers, since Mud Lake sits just over the hill beyond his property. About a mile of the gravel road leading to the lake, including the entrance off SR 410, runs right across Williamson's property.

For years, he put up with the thousands of dollars of vandalism, the relentless garbage-dumping, the all-hours gunfire and poaching, not to mention the dangers created by irresponsible hunters who didn't seem to care that the Williamson family's homes might be in the line of fire.

Once, Williamson's son David — who has a home on the property — heard shots just up the road during a non-hunting season and went up to investigate and found himself almost in the line of fire of several apparently inebriated individuals who had decided to kill a bighorn sheep.

And then there were the ones who weren't even hunting, but were just shooting up there at all hours — sometimes with fully automatic weapons. Suffice it to say, the sound of a machine gun blasting away at 2 a.m. is not conducive to comfortable sleep.

Ken Williamson put up with all of that because, he said, he knows that it's only a "very, very small percentage of people" that are "going to ruin it for everybody."

Until, finally, they did. Enough became enough.

Last New Year's weekend, David Williamson came home to his house on the property and found that his home and his brand-new car had been hit with buckshot. That's when Ken Williamson decided to gate the road — legally, on his own land — for the first time.

Williamson, himself a former hunter, didn't want to gate the road. He reopened it for 120 days, during which he hoped state officials would do whatever was necessary to assure better law enforcement response to the unsettling activities on his property. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has precious few enforcement officers, yet Williamson said he has been routinely told by sheriff's personnel, "That's a fish-and-wildlife issue."

"We wanted to bring it to a head and we wanted to get some things resolved," Williamson said. "And we weren't getting anywhere when time ran out.

"The problem is, when you're sitting there in your house and there are people with guns that are uncontrolled and probably using alcoholic beverages, at night ... who knows what they're going to shoot? And I'm not going to have my family shot at."

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Oak Creek Wildlife Area manager John McGowan, who oversees much of the state land around the Williamsons' property, is sympathetic to their concerns.

"When you talk to him, and hear all they've had to deal with, it's easy to see his side of it," McGowan said. "Of course, the public doesn't see it this way. You've got people writing to the Fish and Wildlife Commission, saying 'They can't do this,' and threatening to sue because they say it's their right, they've been going up there for years and now there's no access."

Mud Lake is still accessible to motorized traffic, only by a much more circuitous route. One must go another nine miles out SR 410 to Forest Road 1701 (Bald Mountain Road), then follow state roads to the top of Cleman Mountain and then back to the lake from the north side.

The problem, of course, is that while the vast majority of hunters and fishers are totally responsible, the few who aren't can cause enough damage and create enough headaches that landowners simply get fed up.

The major landowner along the South Fork Cowiche Creek is Van Wyk Ranches, which remained enrolled in the state's "Feel Free to Hunt" program for more than 15 years. The ranches' 4,600 acres were prime habitat for deer, elk and upland birds, grouse in particular. But after years of vandalism and garbage, of having people cutting fences so they could drive their four-wheel-drives and ATVs onto ranch property, and having property signs shot full of holes, the ranch's "Feel Free to Hunt" signs were replaced last year with "No Trespassing" signs.

The same thing has happened in at least two long-popular hunting areas in the Manastash, including Shell Rock, where private owners — who for years have allowed access across their property to the public lands beyond — have gated the roads.

Franklin County landowner Reid Schafer has about 4,000 acres east of Connell that are posted feel-free-to-hunt. It's supposed to be walk-in only, but some hunters will abuse that and drive in anyway, then leave their beer containers and other garbage behind.

"It's a double-edged sword," Schafer said. "People have a right to hunt and fish, but landowners get tired of people disrespecting your property."

Schafer would like to be able to hunt safely with his son, "but there's no place left on my place that I can hunt ... it's almost at that point now." So last weekend he and his son went up for the opening weekend of deer season to Odessa, where Schafer's brother has private property that isn't open to hunting. Not that that mattered — twice they encountered trespassing hunters, one of whom had just shot a deer.

"It's a huge problem," Schafer said. "As far as private property, people should not be allowed to hunt on that ground. They'll do it anyway. It's kind of like you can't stop them."

"People are starting to say, 'Enough's enough,"' said state wildlife habitat biologist and avid hunter Ken Bevis. "And a portion of the public is not willing to accept that; they're saying, wait a minute, this has always been public land — even when it wasn't — and they're resistant to that change of having restrictions put on them.

"It's a real problem, because as use goes up, problems go up, and landowners say 'Forget it.' And I'm not sure I blame them."

Tom Bass, who owns ranch property in the Wenas, still allows hunting on his property, though he charges them what he calls "a camping fee." But he understands why other landowners have locked their gates.

"We've all had those issues, if you've lived in (rural) private property for any length of time," Bass said. "You've had animals shot, you've had gates left open, you've had rude hunters, you've had the garbage. It just takes a few to spoil the whole hunting experience for a landowner.

"What I've found (is), most hunters don't even know where they're at, if they're on private land, public land — they're not sure. And that's where a private landowner that's lived there all his life gets mad: 'Don't you know where you're at?' And this guy who maybe came over from Seattle says, 'No, I don't.' We need some better education for hunters."

And, for what so many landowners and state wildlife officials call "the two-percenters," some common sense.

Some hunters are feeling squeezed out.

George Shockley, an archery hunter from Sunnyside, has seen several areas he's traditionally hunted in Klickitat County become closed to hunters over the past decade — particularly during the late archery season. And many of those closures, including a recent one involving several roads within the Klickitat Wildlife Area, take effect at the beginning of November, all but wiping out the late archery season.

"Virtually from Klickitat to Glenwood and from Klickitat to Lyle, that's all closed," Shockley said. "It's open to the rifle hunters (October seasons), but not to the bowhunters."

The closures in other areas, he said, have increased hunting pressure in the Soda Springs portion of the Klickitat Wildlife Area, where now several of the side roads into the best hunting land are gated off. Hunters can walk in, but hiking many uphill miles just to get to a hunting area isn't an attractive option for Shockley; he's 70 years old.

Ken McNamee, a district manager with the Department of the Natural Resources, said his agency has received a lot of phone calls from hunters angry about being unable to reach state lands in areas of the Manastash where private landowners have gated roads across their property.

"The landowner has every right to do that," McNamee said, noting that some long-time users believe they have just as much a right to the access they've always enjoyed.

"Some people say it would be prescriptive rights, because they've always used it for so long. Some of these folks have been using these (roads) to get to campsites for two, three ... four generations. And all of a sudden a road is closed, there's a gate across it or whatever, and they feel like they've been booted off their property."

Even with all of the recent closures, though, there are also positives for hunters and other access advocates.

Proposed land exchanges between Western Pacific Timber and the Department of Natural Resources would, if they proceed as expected, preserve access to vast areas in the Umtanum and Wenas. And other campaigns, such as the wildlife department's partnering with Nature Conservancy to acquire 10,000 acres within the Oak Creek and Tieton area has ensured that several key access and hunting areas — including Bear Canyon — will remain open to the public.

And on top of all that, there is still "significantly more" free-to-hunt private lands available to hunters than there were a decade ago, said state wildlife private-lands biologist Mike Keller.

"In Region 3 (four counties, including Yakima and Kittitas), we have 182,632 acres of feel-free-to-hunt on private lands," Keller said. "In Franklin County alone, in the dryland area there was no feel-free-to-hunt ground (in 1998), and now we've signed up about 50,000 acres."

Much of the gains have been because of the Conservation Reserve Program, in which farmers have received government funding to remove their agricultural land from production and focus on environmental and wildlife habitat enhancement.

But the bulk of the contracts those landowners signed were for 10 years, and most of them will be coming around for renewal over the next one to three years. And with grain prices at record highs and with some landowners' frustration also reaching a peak, Keller said it's all the more critical for hunters to be on their best behavior on private land.

"All over Eastern Washington, these contracts are going to start expiring, and a lot of whether these people are going to stay in the program or not is going to hinge on the kind of experience these people have had. We stand a chance to lose a lot here shortly.

"So it's really important for people to take care of things, not shoot near people's houses or leave trash.

"And if you see people doing things like that? Turn them in."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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