Draft Boating Access Site and Facility Management Plan

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The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF; hereafter also referred to as ‘agency’) owns or shares maintenance responsibilities for ~235 boating access (BA) sites and facilities across the Commonwealth. Lands and waters associated with BA sites, held in trust and managed by DGIF, provide access to Virginia’s diverse aquatic resources for fishing, hunting, and wildlife-related recreation opportunities. Today, the social and economic demographics embodied in Virginia’s communities are changing and continue to evolve. As part of this evolution, the interests and desires expressed by citizens regarding access to the Commonwealth’s waters also change. According to the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation survey (US Fish and Wildlife Service 2018), in the 5 years since the previous National Survey was completed (i.e., 2011-2016), participation in hunting declined 16% and hunting-related spending is down 26%, whereas, the total number of people fishing increased by 8% and fishing-related spending is up by 3%. In contrast, participation in wildlife-watching activities increased by 20% over the same period (US Fish and Wildlife Service 2018). Historically, Virginia license sales and participation in traditional hunting, fishing, and trapping activities have mirrored national trends. If Virginia continues to follow its previous pattern of mirroring the national trend, then it is fair to speculate that the Commonwealth will experience a decline in some state-issued license sales and grant-based monies collected as federal excise taxes on hunting and fishing related equipment, while, at the same time, interest and participation in non-traditional wildlife-related activities will grow.

As some activity-based funding resources are projected to shrink or increase only modestly, the DGIF can expect demand for public access to water resources will increase, due, in part, to growing sales of recreational boats in Virginia. Sales of non-powered watercraft are difficult to quantify, yet numerous examples exist (e.g., growth in water trails and blueways, growth in water-based activities such as stand-up-paddle boards and pack rafting) that suggest participation in non-powered water-based recreational activities and other desired uses of BA sites will grow as well. Additionally, results from the 2017 Virginia Outdoors Demand Survey found that “…70% consider it very important to have access to outdoor recreation,” which represents a 15% increase since the 2011 survey (Draft 2018 Virginia Outdoors Plan, p. 11). In response to a survey conducted as a part of the Virginia Boating Access Study, participants, when asked to contrast their intended future use of BA sites in the coming year with that of the current year, 49% stated a likelihood of making ‘more’ visitations and 45% said ‘about the same’ rate (Wolter and Parkhurst 2018). At the same time, a new, non-traditional, and growing constituency of users is bringing additional, and sometimes conflicting, management challenges to the agency as they seek use of BA sites. As a result, the ability of the agency to fulfill existing maintenance needs, while also trying to accommodate demands and expectations of new BA site users, presents unique issues. Clearly, the DGIF should not expect less need for BA site maintenance, but rather should anticipate a concurrent, and likely increasing, need for an adaptive management response.

Given these facts, and to identify and gain better understanding of the emerging management challenges it faces, the DGIF in 2016 collaborated with researchers in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech to initiate the Virginia Boating Access Study (hereafter referred to as ‘the study’) to examine boating access issues and concerns across the Commonwealth. Key scoping tasks of the study were to:

  • conduct an assessment and characterization of current and potential future use of BA sites;
  • assess users’ preferences and satisfaction with BA facilities;
  • gather opinions and attitudes of users about issues related to accessing waters of the Commonwealth; and
  • develop recommendations for consideration on policies and operational procedures on how best to allocate resources and management efforts to fulfill the agency’s obligations, as stated in its Mission.

Boating Access Study Summary Findings

Across all survey instruments used, and regardless of demographic characteristics, activity interest, or geographic/regional differences, study participants expressed a sincere desire to access and use Virginia’s waters or associated shoreline settings in a variety of ways. Moreover, the public views BA sites as being much more than just a “boat ramp.” Indeed, users see BA sites and facilities as being analogous to trailhead parking sites to access blueways and, as such, the public currently is using, and desires to continue using, water access sites in ways that fulfill personal interests, regardless of the originally intended purpose for the BA site (i.e., water access for fishing, hunting, and/or trapping activities).

Boating Access Program Administration

Virginia Code (Title 29.1, Chapter 7) authorizes the Board of Game and Inland Fisheries to register and title watercraft, provide educational programs for boating safety, and set forth rules and regulations controlling boating activities in Virginia. A portion of the funds collected through administration of these responsibilities supports the DGIF Boating Access Program (BAP) and contributes to the fulfillment of the agency’s 3-part mission to conserve, connect, and protect. Data collected from this study from interactions with boating access users, as well as DGIF staff, administrators, and Conservation Police Officers, identify several challenges associated with BAP administration. Chief among these challenges are the lack of guiding policy or, where policy may exist, conflicting policies within the agency that complicate the maintenance and management of DGIF-owned and/or cooperatively managed BA sites. The lack of an up-to-date BA site and facility inventory database, inconsistent contract language and unclear statements of expectations in cooperative agreements, and inconsistent monitoring and/or enforcement of provisions of cooperative agreements all are examples of issues that create difficulties in addressing maintenance needs and meeting expectations consistently across the agency’s four administrative regions. Need exists to formalize policy that clarifies acceptable use of BA sites for the public, but also for agency personnel so that, when staff communicates with the public, it does so with one voice. The lack of consistent policies that outline permitted on-site uses of and activities at BA facilities, as well as no formal policy for the acquisition and closure of BA properties, makes uniform execution of the BAP difficult. Lastly, and this cannot be overstated, the lack of consistent definitions and use of terminology by staff further hinders the agency’s ability to project clear understanding of the BAP’s purpose and scope of execution, both internally across agency divisions and externally with BA constituents.

This study’s investigations revealed that ~ 93% of existing users of DGIF-owned or cooperatively managed BA sites and facilities currently are “paying” or “contributing financially” to the BAP through a variety of mechanisms. Moreover, ~35% are contributing in more than one way (e.g., user possesses a valid fishing license and owns a registered boat in Virginia). Although a substantial proportion of BA users already pay through existing mechanisms, opportunity exists for the public to further connect their water-based outdoor BA activities with the agency through voluntary funding programs and collaborative partnerships. For instance, ~44% of participants in the mail survey who use DGIF BA sites expressed a willingness to voluntarily purchase a “Virginia Conservation Stamp,” whereas ~30% of respondents expressed a willingness to voluntarily make a tax-deductible donation to support BA annual maintenance and acquisition of new sites (Wolter & Parkhurst, 2018).

It became abundantly clear from focus group discussions and open-ended survey questions that members of the general public do not know much about the DGIF — what it does, what its responsibilities are, how it is funded, or how it differs from other state entities. This illustrates a significant need to improve communication and raise awareness among citizens about DGIF, particularly how it is funded and operates. At the same time, many BA users knew little about the limited BA maintenance staff nor the finite funding and other constraints that affect BA operations in Virginia. After learning about these limitations, participants became more understanding of the challenges DGIF faces in managing BA sites. In fact, following that realization, participants eagerly offered ideas and suggestions about ways DGIF could collaborate with municipalities, boating clubs, land trusts, conservation organizations, and businesses to help address financial and personnel resource gaps. It was evident from these interactions with BA users that they value collaborative approaches and view cooperative or supporting partnerships among communities, municipalities, and agencies as acceptable strategies to meet existing needs of BA users across the Commonwealth. Across all meetings, participants reiterated that no single entity alone has sufficient money or staffing to meet the ever-growing demand of Virginia’s citizens for water-access sites; therefore, participants strongly encouraged DGIF to investigate alternative collaborate partnerships as a strategy to satisfy mutual interests.

Finally, this study’s interactions with BA users clearly underscore an inherent difficulty in teasing apart specific topics, issues, and/or concerns identified because they are linked so inextricably to one another. Attempts to address or resolve an identified issue in isolation from the full context within which that issue exists likely will not produce meaningful and desired outcomes. Therefore, this highlights the need to develop clear agency operational and management policy that then is communicated in clear terms both internally to agency staff and externally to the BA public. Given that, many of the proposed goals and objectives presented in this draft plan focus on establishing the necessary guidance framework and foundation and implementing actions that provide consistent administrative and operational follow-through on the most pressing needs identified during this study.

Boating Access Site and Facility Management Plan Highlights

Overview

With facilitation services provided by Virginia Tech researchers, a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), comprised of DGIF personnel with expertise relative to boating access and water-based recreation, constructed the draft Boating Access Site and Facilities Management Plan. This multi-faceted document serves multiple purposes related to BA sites owned, leased, eased, and/or managed, in part, by the agency, including:

  1. Describes the responsibilities and mission of DGIF and its Boating Access Program;
  2. Establishes a comprehensive baseline database of boating access parameters from which measures of progress and fulfillment of management goals can be assessed;
  3. Sets forth and prioritizes the updating and/or development of operational, maintenance, personnel, and administrative goals, objectives, strategies, and guidance policies related to the maintenance and management of BA sites owned and/or cooperatively-managed by DGIF;
  4. Identifies and offers recommendations that prioritize needs regarding communication and outreach with both traditional and non-traditional boating access constituents; and
  5. Provides agency staff a planning and management policy guide to facilitate and improve efficiency within the agency’s Boating Access Program.

Following is a brief summary of the overarching principles, goals, and primary objectives that will guide and shape the management of DGIF’s BA sites over the next 10 years. A complete and detailed presentation of objectives and strategies is provided in Chapter 3 of this document.

Overarching Principles

  1. Water access: to provide opportunities for Virginia’s citizens and visitors to connect with natural resources through water-based wildlife recreation (e.g., fishing, hunting, trapping, water-based wildlife viewing) and, where compatible with the aforementioned priority uses, other boat-based recreational activities.
  2. Safety: to provide safe and secure opportunities for Virginia’s citizens and visitors to access and enjoy the state’s waters.
  3. Fiscal responsibility: to wisely manage and allocate the agency’s funds and personnel resources in ways that comply with state and federal funding requirements and restrictions, and to do so in a manner that allows transparency with constituents.
  4. Communication: to provide comprehensive 2-way communication between the agency and the public it serves.
  5. Outreach and Education: to provide outreach and education opportunities and programs that connect Virginia’s citizens with nature and encourage users of BA sites and facilities to conserve aquatic resources and habitats.

Goal Statements

Goal 1: Conduct a Comprehensive Boating Access Site and Facility Inventory Assessment

Objectives, with associated strategies, direct DGIF to:

  • construct a comprehensive, up-to-date database that identifies and describes all existing DGIF wholly-owned and cooperatively managed sites and facilities for which it has management responsibility.
  • conduct a comprehensive assessment of future demands and needs for BA sites and facilities with an eye toward adopting a forward-looking view about BA site and facility management that shifts operational policy from opportunistic and/or reactive to transparent and strategic-based.
  • develop and adopt region-specific boating access site and facility management plans, based on the types of water bodies to which access is provided and in response to the specific boating access demands confronted that are unique to each region.

Goal 2: Clarify DGIF’s Boating Access Site and Facilities Use and Activity Policies

Objectives, with associated strategies, direct DGIF to:

  • define and clarify what constitutes allowable activities at and acceptable use of each boating access site in the DGIF boating access inventory.
  • formulate and adopt a legally binding and inclusive definition to resolve the current uncertainty about what constitutes a “boat,” “vessel,” “watercraft,” or other “personal conveyance device” upon the waters of the Commonwealth.
  • enforce the rules and regulations, as adopted, consistently at all BA sites.

Goal 3: Establish Formal Boating Access Site and Facilities Maintenance Policies and Operational Protocols

Objectives, with associated strategies, direct DGIF to:

  • formalize a policy that defines and prioritizes maintenance responsibilities and needs at DGIF BA sites and facilities, taking into consideration issues relating to safety, water accessibility needs, site aesthetics, budget considerations, ownership/partnership agreements, and a site’s physical and social limitations.
  • develop and implement, within each administrative region, a formal process for evaluating and prioritizing needs and requests for BA site and facilities improvement and/or expansion, using clear and relevant criteria.
  • complete an analysis of the current administration of funds used to support the Boating Access Program, and identify and adopt actions that maximize cost-effective and fiscally responsible use of available funds.

Goal 4: Create and Formalize A Legally Sound and Fiscally Responsible Boating Access Site and Facility Acquisition and Closure Policy

Objectives, with associated strategies, direct DGIF to:

  • complete an examination of all property acquisitions and agreements into which DGIF has entered that provide BA access and evaluate whether and how those actions fulfill the agency’s mission of providing safe public boating access in fiscally responsible and strategically meaningful ways.
  • conduct a strategic evaluation of BA needs, by region and by water type, to identify and prioritize types and locations of critical unmet access need that will guide future acquisitions efforts.
  • examine and, where necessary, revise and enhance the Tiered Review Selection Protocol, then formally adopt this tool as the primary decision-making mechanism for use when evaluating potential sites for acquisition or entering into new collaborative boating access ventures.
  • develop and implement a formal policy on BA site closure and/or retirement.

Goal 5: Improve Awareness and Understanding of DGIF’s Boating Access Program and Pertinent Laws, Regulations, and Restrictions

Objectives, with associated strategies, direct DGIF to:

  • create a professional development and communication plan that informs and clarifies understanding of the Boating Access Program among agency personnel.
  • develop and implement a targeted education outreach initiative for water-based recreational users about the DGIF Boating Access Program.
  • revise and disseminate an accurate, up-to-date information database on the inventory of DGIF maintained BA sites across the Commonwealth.
  • assure that agency staff convey a uniform and consistent presentation of agency policy on allowable uses and acceptable activities at BA sites.

Public Comment Period: November 6–December 7, 2018

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Read the full Draft Boating Access Site and Facility Management Plan