A self-serving depiction of Blackwater

Published 5:57 pm Tuesday, July 10, 2018

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A reader wrote to us this week to express her disbelief at the outlandish comments made by a county hunt club member who was trying to convince the Board of Supervisors not to open the county’s Blackwater River lands to the public. She was equally dismayed that the newspaper had printed the comments made by hunt club member Fred Mitchell.

Mitchell attempted to picture the Blackwater property as something out of a television reality show. In his scenario, unwary, witless wanderers would be attacked and mauled by bears if they were allowed to hike into the property. Those who made it past the bears would be bitten by poisonous vipers. Still others would wander off into the wilderness and commit suicide.

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We agree with our reader that it was a laughable depiction, except for one thing. Some of the supervisors weren’t laughing. It appeared to Times Managing Editor Diana McFarland, who was sitting there, that a couple of them might even be taking Mitchell seriously.

And so she wrote the story, straight up, as it had unfolded at the supervisors’ meeting. And we printed it, feeling quite frankly, that county residents need to know the caliber of the comments being employed to try and keep several thousand acres of land off limits to the public.

To reiterate the property’s background: The county purchased roughly 2,500 acres back in 2010 for $3 million, about half of it grant money and half local taxes. Since then, it has leased the property to two county hunt clubs, giving them exclusive hunting rights on the property, and prohibited the general public from hiking, hunting, camping or otherwise using it.

Recently, the county has been discussing an agreement with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to open the tract to the public for hunting and other recreational uses.

Game Department officials say the type of incidents envisioned by Mitchell just haven’t occurred on similar wilderness areas managed by the Commission, including a 2,100-acre property in Sussex County. During the past year, five calls came in about some type of problem there. Two of them involved hunt clubs and one involved hunting with dogs, the regional deer hunting method favored by hunt clubs.

No suicides, bear attacks or snake bites were reported.

That’s not to say that somebody someday might not confront a bear and make the animal feel threatened, or that somebody might not one day step on or too close to a Copperhead snake. Yes, that can happen — in the Blackwater tract or, as our reader pointed out, in your backyard.

Game Commission officials did acknowledge that the Ragged Island wilderness area, in eastern Isle of Wight, has had some rather unusual incidents because of its proximity to Newport News. Strange things have always occurred there, including an occasional murder, and probably always will. But despite the occasional bizarre incident, the Ragged Island property has remained open and popular.

The Blackwater land, like the Sussex tract, is a very suitable location for public use. The Department will build launch areas for kayaks and canoes and, over time, make other improvements to make the property accessible and enjoyable to the public.

Taxpayers paid for the Blackwater property and it should be open to them, preferably in a managed fashion. The Game Department, eager to attract more people to enjoy the outdoors (and to pay state fees for doing so) is the logical manager of the land, and the agreement seems to be Isle of Wight’s best avenue for making public access available in a responsible fashion.

An agreement with the Department would end the exclusive agreements with the hunt clubs, and it’s understandable that they would want to retain their current monopoly on its use. In doing so, however, their spokesmen do their credibility little good by talking about killer bears, venomous snakes and suicidal hikers.