Massachusetts BHA 2023 Policy Roundup

2023 was another busy year for the Massachusetts BHA team! From Beacon Hill to Westborough, the New England Chapter worked diligently on behalf of our fishing and hunting heritage, not to mention our public lands, waters, and wildlife. 


Issue: Public Lands Forestry Management

The management of our public forested lands in Massachusetts has become one of the most complex conservation issues in the state in recent years. We’ve seen numerous legislative efforts to shift the management objectives of state lands like Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) away from their intended purpose and towards carbon sequestration to address climate change concerns. In some cases, these bills go as far as taking management away from state agencies (MassWildlife, DCR, etc) and putting it in the hands of environmental special interest groups. Further complicating this issue in 2023, there was an executive order put into action by Massachusettts Governor Maura Healey, that effectively put a moratorium on forestry management on state owned lands.

For background, Massachusetts is the 8th most forested state in the nation, with 62% of the state covered by forest. Nearly 80% is in private ownership, the vast majority of which is not intentionally being managed for wildlife habitat or biodiversity, nor is it open for hunting and fishing.  This leaves land managed by state agencies like MassWildlife critically important for protecting and supporting endangered and threatened species, right along with more common ones.

Recognizing the persistent efforts of those who would like end habitat management on WMAs and the potential changes these groups would like to make on lands managed for wildlife habitat, hunting and fishing, the Massachusetts State Leadership Team has continued to keep this issue as one of its top priorities. 

In what became a newsworthy interaction, Chapter Coordinator Chris Borgatti raised our concerns by asking a question of Governor Healey in a public forum, which ultimately broke a nearly 100 day silence from the administration on the forestry moratorium as well as her administration’s plans related to forestry management. The Governor’s response was an important acknowledgement of the complexity of the issue and the fact that diversity of habitat, wildlife, among other things, are important elements to a forestry management plan

In June, the Healey administration launched the Forests as Climate Solutions Initiative, which created a Climate Forestry Committee charged with making recommendations to optimize carbon sequestration and mitigate climate change harms by utilizing the state’s forested lands. The chapter took every opportunity made available to public to engage in the process and make sure our concerns were heard. On September 12, in the first public input session, Chris Borgatti delivered our initial testimony on the topic. The second public session took place on November 14, when New England Chapter Board Member and Massachusetts State Leadership Co-Lead, Aaron Townsley delivered that testimony. After what was reported to be a contentious process, which required the hiring of a mediator to reach a consensus, the 12-person Climate Forestry Committee released their report on January 3, 2024, Recommendations for Climate Oriented Forest Management Guidelines.  The document itself is complex and often contradictory, which is likely a reflection of the conflict that existed on the committee. Currently, Massachusetts Team is reviewing the 70 page and will be submitting comments.

Problematic forestry management bills persisted in 2023, the first of which chapter leader Allison Crim testified on behalf of the chapter on in and October hearing with the Joint Committee on Environment and Natural ResourcesOur consistent and steady work on this issue is showing promising signs, with some proponents of these bills beginning to move their crosshairs away from WMAs. Still, we know we will have maintain steady pressure on lawmakers to protect our public lands, particularly Wildlife Management Areas. 


Issue: Updating Hunter Harassment Laws

The Massachusetts State Leadership Team officially kicked off its legislative season in April as the lone hunting and fishing organization offering oral testimony before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary in support of S.1072 and H.1829, Acts Updating Hunter Harassment Laws. Chapter Board Member, Aaron Townsley delivered the chapter's testimony, which centered on the view that hunting and freshwater fishing are legitimate outdoor recreation activities that should be enjoyed without the threat of injury, harassment or destruction of personal property. Thousands of residents and visitors choose to provide themselves with food and connect with wild places by hunting and fishing in Massachusetts each year. The chapter supports the manner in which these acts expand the definition of hunter harassment to include verbal harassment and harassment via the use of mechanical aerial devices (i.e. drones). We are also encouraged by the inclusion of penalties for individuals who harass hunters and anglers, destroy their equipment, and illegally post land, provisions not currently included in MGLA ch.131 § 5C. We are especially grateful that harassment that leads to physical injury is punishable as a felony offense. In light of the rise in hunter harassment incidents, we will continue to advocate for the passing of S.1072 and H.1829, or similar laws in the future. 

 

Issue: Firearm Reform

This summer the Massachusetts State House announced sweeping firearm legislation reform in the form of House bill HD.4420 - An Act Modernizing Firearms Laws.  The stated goal was to update firearms laws to better address several public safety concerns including ghost guns. The bill as initially written contained language that would be detrimental to two issues important to BHA members; youth hunting and access to private land for the purposes of hunting. Youth hunting was affected by banning anyone under the age of 18 from using semi-automatic firearms.  As many members know semi-automatic firearms such as shotguns or .22 rifles are what many new hunters use in the field.  It also reversed traditional hunter access rights.  In Massachusetts the majority of private land is by law accessible to hunters if it is not posted by the owner, hunters observe all regulatory required setbacks, and there are no local ordinances prohibiting such access. A Massachusetts BHA chapter leader was able to meet with their local House Representative and explain our concerns. Written testimony was also provided to the House.  As the bill moved through the House in a frustratingly non-standard path that included several name changes and last second hearings, there were some victories.  The language potentially harmful to hunter access was amended and no longer seems a threat. Unfortunately, the language impacting youth hunting remains.  A version of the bill has passed and now we must wait and see what action the State Senate takes, as they are working on their own version of broad firearm legislation. Massachusetts members should stay tuned.


Issue: Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant Decommissioning 

The New England Chapter received a steady stream of outreach from members as well as other concerned hunters and anglers regarding the decommissioning of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth, MA. There was a concern that Holtec, the company conducting the decommissioning process, would discharge over a million gallons of radioactive pool water into Cape Cod Bay. We share this concern and recognize that the waters of Cape Cod Bay are the epicenter of not just our region’s commercial fishing heritage, but that of our country. Today, these waters continue to support commercial fishing, and are invaluable to recreational anglers and shellfishermen, as well as many other recreational groups. To date, the chapter and our chapter coordinator, have engaged with elected officials, both at the state and federal level, and have attended Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel Meetings. Authorities ultimately denied Holtec’s request to allow the discharge of the contaminated water into the Bay; however, since that decision has been made the completion date for decommissioning has been pushed back significantly and the new concern is that the contaminated water will simply be allowed to evaporate on site, which does pose air quality concerns. We will continue to engage with state and federal officials and call for the decommissioning process to follow state and federal guidelines.


Issue: Sunday Hunting

This year there were five bills that involved Sunday Hunting (H.912, H.800, H,920, H.877, and S.500) and the chapter testified in support of these bills at the Joint Committee of Environment and Natural Resources. Massachusetts is now just among only a handful of states that has yet to fully repeal Blue Laws pertaining to Sunday Hunting. For hardworking resident sportsmen and women, this antiquated law, severely limits their opportunity to be in the field and share their outdoor traditions with family and friends. Opponents consistently devalue the contributions of hunters and anglers in Commonwealth, and use fear to perpetuate the myth that hunters put the public at risk. The reality is that hunting remains as one of the safest forms of recreation, falling between billiards and bowling in the number of accidents per 100 participants. It should be noted that injuries to non-participants, are extraordinarily rare.


Issue: Setbacks

Currently, Massachusetts law equates the release of an arrow the same as the discharge of a firearm. They are not the same. S.498 would decrease the setback of archery hunters hunting from a tree stand to 250’ or approximately 83 yards, a safe and still considerable distance from any occupied dwelling. This small change would dramatically increase opportunity on lands where it is already permissible to hunt, which is why the Massachusetts Team was strongly in favor of this bill. 

Unfortunately, there has been a continued effort by some to increase the setback of waterfowl hunters along the coast. Two troubling bills, S.455 and S.454, are  an attempt to double the distance for coastal waterfowl hunters. S.455 An Act Addressing Noise Issues of Migratory Game Hunters Near Coastal Dwellings stems from a small contingent of residents on the North Shore, who wish to have the setback from the shoreline increased to 1000’. The State Team testified in opposition to the bill and have had conversations with lawmakers regarding this piece of legislation in 2023.

 

Issue: Additional 2-Weeks of Archery Deer Hunting Zones 1-9

Many Massachusetts BHA members have long advocated for adding two additional weeks to the zones 1-9 archery deer hunting season, so it would mirror the season dates in zones 10-14. As a result, the Massachusetts BHA membership was well represented in August at a public hearing at MassWildlife Headquarters on this exact change. Chapter Board Member, Aaron Townsley, testified on behalf of the chapter in support of the expansion. A number of other BHA members also gave personal testimony in support of the regulatory change. BHA supports the archery deer season extension for two reasons. Firstly, it improves hunter opportunity through the addition of twelve hunting days, including two additional Saturdays. In a state without Sunday hunting, any additional weekend days are a welcome benefit. Secondly, the single start date across the state simplifies hunting regulation and enforcement, particularly in municipalities that are split by the current Wildlife Management Zone boundaries. Ultimately, this change was approved and the opening day of the Archery Deer Season will be shared across all zones on October 7, 2024. 


Additional Legislation we Supported

 


Additional Legislation we Opposed

About Christopher Borgatti

BHA Eastern Policy & Conservation Manager

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