By MATT COMBS, The Register-Herald of Beckley
GLEN JEAN, W.Va. — With six national parks, dozens of state parks and a national forest that spans nearly a million acres, West Virginia has plenty of woods. In fact, ranked by percentage by the U.S. Forest Service, the Mountain State is third in the nation in total forest cover with over 75 percent of the state in the woods. The Summit Bechtel Reserve in Fayette County now has a new set of tools to attempt to get more people into those woods and a program to help them complete that task safely.
"The ultimate goal is to take kids from all over the country, bring them here, send them through our course and ultimately getting more kids in the woods," said Ryan King, the camp's shooting sports program director. "That's what it's all about, creating more hunters, creating the next generation of sportsmen and wildlife conservationists."
King was instrumental in the creation of the reserve's hunter education and skills development program and with a generous grant, the reserve was able to construct the Joe Crafton Hunter's Hall and neighboring skills development center. Kicking off in June, the education program has already seen 1,372 individuals from around the country come through it during their visit to the reserve for a total of 1,806 instructional hours.
The students first undergo a safety course inside Hunter's Hall and then head next door for practical training on firearms simulators. "The program is designed to be an instructional course, as well as a hands-on course," said Chris Perkins, the lead for the program. While teaching shooting fundamentals, the program is also aimed at teaching wildlife conservation and wildlife management as well as hunting. In fact, the walls of Hunter's Hall share with visitors the impact that recreational hunting has on conservation efforts. According to the displays, nearly $34 billion is spent every year on hunting activities in the United States with 75 percent of wildlife conservation dollars in the nation coming from the pockets of hunters. Implemented in the early 1900s, the nation's program of using hunting dollars to fund conservation measures has seemed to pay off.
According to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on hunting-supported conservation, the nation's elk population went from 41,000 in 1907 to over a million today. Those numbers are also reflected in game species more commonly found in the Mountain State. Whitetail deer numbers have jumped from a half a million in 1900, to over 32 million today. The greatest impact of hunters providing for a future, more sustainable population can be seen in the nation's duck population.
At the turn of the last century, few ducks remained in the nation's skies. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act which required hunters to purchase a stamp to participate in hunts. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, since its inception, the Duck Stamp has collected some $800 million which went to the purchase of 5.7 million acres of protected lands. Now, according to RMEF, there are 44 million ducks in the United States. While the reserve is booked for Scouting events in the summer, Perkins is hopeful that in other seasons the new hunting program can be used more locally and said that a partnership has formed to ensure that. "The unique thing about it is we're working with the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources so that we can actually have (public) hunter education classes here on this site," Perkins said.
The program manager also would like to see state schools take advantage of the buildings on field trips to the reserve. "We will show them this building and talk about wildlife conservation and management," Perkins said. The reserve and the new Hunter's Lodge facility impressed Victoria Campanini, the District Executive of the North Florida Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Campanini spoke highly of the different activities that both boys and girls can partake in while at the reserve and pointed to Hunter's Hall as a key place for learning in today's climate. "I think it's very important right about now because we've got school shootings and all the types of negative aspects of firearms," Campanini said. "This is a positive aspect of firearms. The safety part of it, the fact that youth are using the firearms is more important." Campanini said that skills learned at the reserve and at the Hunter's Hall can help boost young people's self-esteem and teach them responsible use and said that the new program shows that a kid can be safe and responsible with a firearm. "This is a great facility," said the regional Scout leader on her first visit to West Virginia. With a new found love of the Mountain State, Campanini said that she will be going back to Florida to recommend a visit to the Summit Bechtel Reserve for all of her local troops.
With many hunting dollars going toward conservation, the nation now faces a problem when looking towards conservation in the future — a declining hunting population. According to data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the percentage of the American population that hunts has declined from 7.3 percent in 1991 to 4.4 percent in 2016. By working with the program at Summit Bechtel, Perkins is hopeful to reverse that trend. "Hunting and shooting sports can be recreational," Perkins said. It can be enjoyable and by all means, it is something that is very beneficial to the wildlife, habitat and conservation. Perkins pointed to his own upbringing, going hunting with his father and to various shooting achievements as evidence that shooting is something that sticks to a person for years and that it isn't all about simply killing an animal. "It's not always about hunting something and bringing back something in the back of your vehicle," Perkins said. "Just take trout fishing, I love to eat trout but I don't always come home with my limit but the experience itself is rewarding."