Who Should Have Access To State Boat Ramps?
Vermont's boaters and anglers pay for public boat launches through their license fees and specific use-taxes, and the general public is not allowed to park at the areas for other uses. But the chairman of the committee on Fish, Wildlife & Water Resources says the boat launch areas should be available to everyone."If you are simply there doing something other than boating, you are within your rights as a taxpayer, of the both the state of Vermont, and the federal government to be on that launch site," says Rep. David Deen of Westminster. "And it's going to take a lot to dissuade me that that's not true."
Westminster is one town over from Putney, where Deen says people have been asked to leave the state boat launch on Connecticut River.
When lawmakers gets back to Montpelier in January Deen will introduce a bill that he says will clarify the rules around the launch sites, which are paid for, in part with federal funds.
"The federal regulations have been misinterpreted at the state level," Deen says. "Under the federal regulations there is no prohibition for other activities and as long as they're not interfering with a priority activity, those activities can take place. And that is not how it is being interpreted or enforced."
The state rule that bars the general public from sharing the boat launches and parking areas was adopted in 2006, when Brian Ames was chairman of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Board.
Ames lives in Putney and he says there are many times each summer that he has had trouble accessing the Connecticut River site due to large groups that were swimming or meeting for other reasons besides fishing or boating.
"If it was opened up on a broader scale, it'd quite frankly be a disaster down here," Ames says. "People should be able to use these for what they were originally purchased for and built for."
During the off-season it is less crowded, but Ames says game wardens should enforce the rules at all times.
"Like any rule and law, it has to be enforceable and you have to be consistent," he says. "And I fear that if we're not consistent you'll start to erode at the priority user's rights to this area."
"If you are simply there doing something other than boating, you are within your rights as a taxpayer, of the both the state of Vermont, and the federal government to be on that launch site." - Rep. David Deen, chairman of the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee.
On a recent cold November afternoon, Candace Brown was down at the Putney boat launch, a spot she says she's been visiting regularly since the 2016 Presidential election.
"This Connecticut River is an incredible gift to the people who live here," Brown says. "And since Trump got elected I come down here every day, and it's my place of relief and solace."
Brown drives down here, and parks at the Vermont state boat launch, and she takes a photo of the river, every day.
She says she's never closely read the information on the kiosk, that clearly states that Vermont state boat launches have authorized uses.
And photography isn't one of them.
Brown says she gets it. If boaters pay for the access areas then they should be able to park here and get into the water.
But she says there should be a way to share the resource.
"I know Vermont is not exactly wealthy," says Brown. "And I know a lot of poor people come down here. And I don't consider myself wealthy but if I have to pay a tax to use this I would gladly do so."
Federal taxes on fishing gear and motor boat fuel help pay for the launch sites, and Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter says the state's hands are tied.
In 2017, more than half of the money the state spent on the boat launches came through the federal tax payments.
Porter says the federal funding could be taken away if the sites were opened to the general public.
"We want to be able to ensure that the people who are supporting wildlife conservation and wildlife activities through their taxes and license money are able to use the resources," Porter says. "At many of these access areas, if we were to allow anybody who wanted to use them for any purposes, they would be quickly overrun and unable to be accessed by boaters, anglers and hunters."
Vermont game warden Kelly Price covers the Brattleboro area and over the past few months he's asked some people who were using the site to leave
The activities that forced Price to chase the people away included watercolor painting and reading a newspaper.
He could have issued a ticket, but he only made those people leave.
Price says he uses discretion when enforcing the law. When a couple of guys were smoking pot in their car, he did write a $162 violation.
"I'm not saying this is easy. I'm not saying it's done perfect every time, and I have to balance it out day by day and individual to individual," Price says. "But the black and white of it is, technically, anything except the designated uses by statute aren't allowed. But again, I try to be reasonable."
The Department of Fish & Wildlife maintains more than 180 launch sites on rivers and lakes across Vermont.