Though Sand Hill WMA Lease Arrangement Ends, WVDNR Director McDaniel Excited About Much Larger Land Acquisitions

McDaniel: ‘Not much we could do’ in sale of 967-acre tract of Sand Hill WMA

HARRISVILLE, W.Va. – News broke before the new year that effective Jan. 1, 967 acres of the Sand Hill Wildlife Management Area would be closed for public use. The now-closed tract spanned across the Wood-Ritchie border. 

Naturally, hunters and locals were upset about the development, one that seemingly came out of nowhere, and it was a disappointment West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Director Stephen McDaniel shared. 

“The owner sold a piece of it, the people who bought it do not want to renew the lease and there’s not much we can do,” McDaniel said. “Even though we don’t like to give up any hunting land – it’s unfortunate – but we’ve done our best to add to our holdings in that area because we have so many hunters in the area, plus all the out-of-state hunters we have coming from Ohio makes it a little more enticing for them.”

The ruckus-causing land was previously under a lease arrangement between the WVDNR and Dominion Energy Transmission, Inc., an interstate gas transmission subsidiary of Dominion Energy. Recently, DETI was sold by Dominion Energy to Berkshire Hathaway Energy in a $9.7 billion deal, one that was closed on Nov. 2. Berkshire Hathaway Energy is an affiliate of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Though Dominion’s transmissions assets were sold, a representative of Berkshire Hathaway Energy was unavailable to confirm whether they were responsible for the sale of the 967 acres, and, if so, whom they sold it to. More information will be provided as it becomes available in a follow-up piece to this story.

“They’re new entities and people look at things differently,” McDaniel said of the sale. “I don’t know what their reasoning for it was, but you’re always at risk of that when you’re doing a lease. But they’ve been great to work with, they just decided to not continue that lease.” 

McDaniel did not know who bought the land. Further, because it was a lease, there was “no need” for public comment, according to McDaniel. 

“It was out of our control,” he said. “I don’t know the particulars or if we were given an opportunity to purchase the acreage, but a lot of the time we’re not allowed to pay more than appraisal for acreage like that. I’m not sure what went down, but I know the new owners weren’t interested in leasing the property back to West Virginia.” 

Although losing any hunting land is a disappointment, it’s worth to go back to the WVDNR’s increasing its holdings in the greater-Parkersburg area. In the last year and a half, the WVDNR has purchased over 30,000 acres of land in Ritchie, Wood, Wirt, Calhoun, Pleasants, Jackson and Doddridge counties. According to a May 2019 report by The Inter-Mountain, backed up by former reports by The Parkersburg News and Sentinel and Metro News, the WVDNR’s holdings included opening five new and expanding four existing WMAs and adding a 200-acre tract of land to North Bend State Park. More than 18,000 acres were managed timberland, providing high quality early successional habitat for native game species such as turkey and deer as well as nongame species like migratory songbirds.

These purchases were possible due to The Conservation Fund, who bought the land and has been transferring it to the WVDNR as Pittman-Robertson Act monies became available. At the time of The Inter-Mountain report, the partnership had secured more than 60,000 acres for public land hunting in the state, but since then has increased to almost 80,000 acres. 

“We have a map of the state and have highlighted areas where we’ve tried to increase land holdings for wildlife management areas, and that part of the state is a high-opportunity type deal,” McDaniel said of the greater-Parkersburg area. “We want to acquire more lands there. It’s like anything else, if tracts large enough become available and it’s something we can afford to do, we’ll certainly try to do that. Again, we don’t want to lose any [land] but we’ve added over 30,000 in that region. Although I hate doing it, I’m not too concerned about losing hunting land in the area.”

The move to increase holdings helps with lease arrangements, especially when the owner decides not to continue with the lease such as what happened at Sand Hill. Further, on leased land, the WVDNR cannot enact management plans in full, but on land purchased and transferred to the agency by the Conservation Fund, that isn’t a problem. In the Inter-Mountain report, WVDNR Wildlife Chief Paul Johansen noted that lands acquired through this process will be actively timbered, an important step in providing necessary cover for species in need. Though noted above that deer and turkey will thrive in early successional habitat in the greater-Parkersburg area, forest management is critical to improving habitat for other species around the state, such as ruffed grouse at higher elevations. In recent history, West Virginia’s forest management has declined, leading to a lack of age diversity and crippling species who need young forest growth. 

“We’re nearly 16-million acres statewide, almost 10% of that right now is open to public hunting,” McDaniel said. “We have a lot of public hunting land. You see comments, ‘Well so many West Virginians are going to Ohio to [hunt],’ well if you take a look at the numbers – I don’t have the official ones – it’s almost twice as many people come from Ohio to hunt in West Virginia than West Virginians that go to Ohio. So we continue to add acreage. 

“One of the big reasons we’ve been able to add so much acreage in the area was because of the pipelines. We received dollars from the gas pipelines and have used those dollars to add to our available funds to purchase land. If I’m a hunter in West Virginia, I’m excited because over 50 years we’ve put together maybe 300,000 acres and we added 80,000 of that in four years. There’s more public hunting land now available in West Virginia than there ever has been. So I wouldn’t be concerned, I’d be excited.”

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