CONCORD — State Sen. Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro), who is supporting efforts to allow swimming from non-motorized boat launches, is seeking to at least allow swimming at some launches over the next few years. But Fish and Game says it could lose millions in federal funding if it does.
The issue came to a head last summer when Ossipee resident Jessica Williams launched a campaign against the Fish and Game’s no swimming rule after she got into a debate about it with a conservation officer at Conner Pond. Their exchange became fodder for the season finale of the reality television show Northwoods Law last year.
Conner Pond is located off Pine Hill Road. The cold-water pond of 85 acres is stocked with brook trout. According to Fish and Game’s website, “petro-fueled motors” are banned there, and there is a speed restriction on the water.
Swimming is allowed at the pond, but one cannot go in for a dip directly from the boat launch. Conservation officer Joe Canfield said people may launch a boat from the launch and then get out of their boat and swim.
Williams gained support of the Ossipee selectmen and they and local lawmakers attempted to get Fish and Game to change its mind but to no avail.
Now, state Sen. Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro) and Rep. Ed Comeau (R-Brookfield) have each filed legislation to allow swimmers to use boat launches where gas-powered motor boats are banned. They are SB 160 and HB 276.
Hearings on both bills were held on Feb. 12 in the House Fish and Game and Marine Resources and Senate Energy and Natural Resources committees.
The House Fish and Game and Marine Resources Committee on Tuesday voted that Comeau’s bill inexpedient to legislate, meaning the full House should kill it.
Bradley filed an amendment to his bill, and it passed the senate committee on Thursday by a vote of 5-0 with a recommendation of ought to pass.The bill would pertain to creating a pilot program on five Fish and Game Department selected public, non-motorized car-top boat launches.
“In selecting the five public boat access areas, the department shall choose low impact and low utilization access areas,” says the amended bill. “The purpose shall be to determine if swimming and car-top non-motorized boating can safely utilize a public boat access while limiting the impact to grant funding.”
If passed the newly amended SB 160 would require the director of Fish and Game to tell the senate president, speaker of the house and governor of the results by Nov. 1, 2022. The bill also says that the section calling for swimming at five launches would be repealed as of Nov. 1, 2024.
The Sun reached out to Fish and Game Col. Kevin Jordan, who testified against bills. Jordan reiterated to the Sun that the issue is safety, access and funding. Jordan said William’s idea would make sense if people were reasonable.
“I’ve done this for 28 years now and I can see conflicts coming because people aren’t going to want to give up that real estate on a hot day,” said Jordan, adding he thinks many
bathers won’t move promptly for boaters.
What’s more, Jordan already has to post conservation officers at certain launches to keep the peace between boaters who jockey for parking spaces. He said boaters would be even more aggravated to see swimmers, who don’t pay taxes toward the launch, taking up parking spots that the sportsmen paid for.
State-owned fresh-water boat launches and their parking areas are paid for by boat registration fees and federal taxes on sportspeople who buy fishing equipment and marine fuel under the Wildlife and Sportfish Restoration Act.
“One of the senators asked me how much money that would be and it results to about $500,000,” said Jordan recalling his testimony.
Jordan, on Thursday, said the situation is actually worse than that. He said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave Fish and Game $8.3 million in total last year and the feds sent him a letter that seems to suggest Fish and Game could be deprived of all of that funding if swimming were allowed.
Jordan provided the Sun with a copy of the letter that Colleen Sculley of the Fish and Wildlife Service sent him.
“Heeding the Federal requirements is critical for the Department to maintain eligibility to participate in the Sport Fish Restoration grant program in the future, wrote Sculley who also wrote that swimming would interfere with boat access at launches paid for by grants intended to benefit hunters, fishermen and the like.
“I don’t want to risk losing this kind of money to allow swimming at one boat launch,” said Jordan who was dismayed that Bradley’s bill passed the committee.
Jordan said if the full senate approves SB 160 and the bill goes to the House, he will have a chance to fight it in the House.
Jordan illustrated his point about the strictness of the federal government with an anecdote about Winnisquam. He said there’s a boat launch at that lake that’s paid for with the same funding as Conner Pond’s launch but Winnisquam also allows power boats.
Laconia Fire Department asked if they could put their emergency response boat at a pier at the Winnisquam launch. Fish and Game allowed the fire department to do so but someone complained to federal officials, who then told Fish and Game the fire department’s boat had to leave.
Williams disagrees that the federal funding would prohibit swimming.
“The language cites the primary use must be for boating, but the word primary indicates there are permitted secondary uses, such as swimming, bird watching or general enjoyment,” said Williams, who went on to quote a state law saying that the public is to have access to public waters for recreational purposes.
Williams in an email Thursday said that Bradley’s amendment is a “step in the right direction.”