Editorial: Hunting plan needs public airing
The way human beings share — or more importantly, struggle to share — land is an age-old, sometimes intractable, conflict. That conflict erupts regularly around publicly owned land like conservation areas, recreation fields, community gardens, bike paths and roads, to name a few.
We saw it boil over last month in Northampton when the city sprayed a chemical herbicide on recreation fields next to the Florence Organic Community Gardens at the former Bean/Allard farm. Now we’ll see it unfold around a proposal to allow hunting on Northampton conservation lands.
At the request of city hunters, the Northampton Conservation Commission is researching a proposal to allow hunting on all city-owned conservation land. That would mean hunting is allowed only as it would be under state law, which prohibits firing a gun within 500 feet of a house or within 150 feet of a road. That means, for the proposal under consideration by the conservation commission, about half of the city-owned conservation land would not be open to hunting. State law also prohibits hunting on Sundays, so all of it would be off-limits on Sundays.
Not surprisingly, those who manage conservation areas are wary of this proposal. They believe hunting violates the very premise of conservation land, which is that these parcels are preserved areas for wildlife and plant life — sanctuaries of sorts.
On the other hand, those who hunt suggest that public money in the form of Community Preservation Act dollars has been used to preserve hundreds of acres of land in all corners of the city — and that much of that land was once used by generations of city residents for hunting.
What would be so wrong, these hunters say, with allowing hunting on some of the more remote areas of those conservation lands?
It is important to note that we are not talking about year-round hunting. It seems clear that the greatest concern for those who use conservation land for hiking and the like would be deer hunting, which runs two weeks a year, Dec. 2 through Dec. 14 — not exactly prime hiking season. Other hunting seasons are archery, from Oct. 21 to Nov. 30, and six weeks of turkey hunting in spring and fall.
This is indeed a classic land-use conflict over which it will be extremely difficult to come to any consensus.
The city now allows hunting on two small patches of conservation land — at Rainbow Beach in the Meadows and in the Abuza parcel, which is a small part of the 760-acre Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area.
Three years ago, a group of hunting enthusiasts first approached the Conservation Commission with the idea of allowing hunting on city conservation land. That proposal never went forward, but it has come back again this year in the form of two formal proposals before the board.
A public hearing held Sept. 5 on a request by one group of hunters to allow hunting only in the Beaver Brook Conservation Area drew a small crowd, but since that hearing another hunting group submitted a broadened proposal asking the board to allow hunting at all city-owned conservation areas.
The commission says it plans to discuss both proposals and make a decision on them when it meets Oct. 10. We wonder what the hurry is on that decision. We suggest the board consider holding another public hearing.
The previous public hearing was sparsely attended — and its subject was the more modest proposal seeking hunting at the Beaver Brook lands. There has never been a public hearing on the more far-reaching proposal.
At the very least, the board should hold a public hearing about the new, expanded proposal that seeks to allow hunting on all city conservation land.
No doubt, there will be strong opinions on both sides of this question.
Conservation areas are by definition public land, and allowing hunting on them may render them less public even with responsible hunting. In addition, they often sit close to populated areas, raising doubts about whether hunters will be able to discern what is lawful or not.
Given these concerns, a key question to be answered is whether public safety can be ensured. The least a city board can do is to let a robust public debate take place before making any decisions on a matter of such vital community interest.