By Sara Stewart
WHITE TOWNSHIP — What does community-based wildlife management look like? Township officials have been conveying some mixed signals this year.
Per the township Board of Supervisors’ own literature, open government and citizen engagement are key in pursuing a successful deer management plan for White’s Woods Nature Center and the White Township Recreation Complex. But the words and actions by the supervisors thus far say something very different. During a spring 2020 discussion about White’s Woods, for example, a township supervisor said, “I am not interested in any more public input.”
The HawkEye spoke to two experts on community engagement and local government to get an idea of best practices in pursuing a plan like this one. Both emphasized the wisdom of local leaders engaging with the public and soliciting feedback when undertaking a community action – especially one as controversial as the township’s hunting plans for Whites Woods Nature Center.
Mark Brennan, Penn State’s director of graduate studies in agricultural and extension education, said township supervisors would be working in their own best interest to engage with the community as they weigh a deer management plan.
“It really is to their benefit,” Brennan said in an Oct. 27 phone interview. “It can appear messy, it muddies the water, but the more people you engage, you’re getting more information and more input to make the best decision. And the more people you can get involved, the more different resources [you bring] to the table for the council.”
Public involvement, he added, may require official encouragement.
“Local people are really interested in being involved,” Brennan said. “But they don’t always know where they fit in.”
WHITE TOWNSHIP’S website includes a list of documents pertaining to their development of a deer management program. One of them is a 2004 best-practices article on community-based deer management published in collaboration by Cornell and Penn State universities. Some of its guiding principles are as follows:
“In community-based deer management, community members should be involved in evaluation and in any subsequent decisions,” the article reads. “What is needed to resolve community-based wildlife management issues is a process that includes multiple perspectives, encourages constructive interaction among people with diverse viewpoints, and leads to new understandings and acceptable solutions.”
The document continues: “Formal leaders, such as town officials or agency staff, can motivate change and foster stakeholder trust and support. Cooperation of local leaders is important especially in controversial or complex environments because they lend credibility to efforts to address public issues. Where community trust of the agency is lacking, wildlife agencies may need to invest in building the capacity of local leaders to engage the community in productive dialogue about deer management… Decision-making processes and outcomes must be perceived as credible. In the suburban deer management cases examined here, credibility of the decision-making processes and outcomes were increased by third-party facilitation, stakeholder involvement, and open sharing of information.”
ON PAPER, this would appear to be a common-sense guide to moving forward with the question of what, if anything, to do about the deer population in White’s Woods and the wooded area around the township’s Recreation Complex. But the board of supervisors has been anything but transparent with the public about their plans, and the community is not supportive of what they’ve heard so far.
Township supervisors solicited feedback in the form of letters and emails on their proposed deer hunt, tentatively planned for fall 2022 hunting season. An open records request by Friends of White’s Woods President Sara King yielded a file of public comments from township manager Milt Lady on Sept. 28. The file contains 11 letters in favor of hunting and 24 letters opposing it. For reasons that have not been explained, the file omitted one letter submitted to the board by township resident Patricia Heilman, who also opposed the hunt.
Heilman’s letter contained two important legal points of inquiry for the supervisors:
“I looked up the PA Game Commission rules for archery hunting, and they specify that hunters must be 50 yards away from residences,” Heilman wrote. “So, in what areas of White’s Woods would hunting be legal? Also, the 50-yard requirement from residences pertains to people safety, not home safety. So, in actuality, a hunter would have to remain 50 yards from where people are. With the number of people who use White’s Woods daily, even in the winter months, and the number of close trails and intersecting trails, how will the maintenance of the 50 yards be accomplished?”
Other surveys have elicited different responses. Friends of White’s Woods announced in their November newsletter results of a bow-hunting survey. A majority of survey respondents were in opposition, with only 14 percent in support. And an Indiana Gazette article reported that a survey conducted by WDAD radio found 64 percent of respondents favored a hunt, although the article’s link to the survey didn’t work.
A clear majority of direct respondents to the township are in opposition, but township supervisors seemed uninterested in that feedback, as demonstrated at their open house at S&T Bank Arena on Oct. 21.
“All public comments will be accepted,” read the township’s flyer, which also reported that several experts would be on hand to answer questions. (All of them turned out to favor deer hunting in White’s Woods.)
But the event, which was sparsely attended due to fears about attending live events during a pandemic, did not ultimately allow public comments. Township Recreation Director Ryan Schaffer turned on a microphone to introduce the experts, then added that one or two “loud voices” would not be allowed to monopolize the discussion, so all comments would be between individual community members and the experts stationed at tables around the room.
No moderated public discussion was facilitated, although a comment box was available on a folding table near the exit. The box yielded two written public comments, both expressing objections to the hunting plan.
EXPERTS SAY many Americans now are looking to get more involved in local government decision-making. The observation is shared by Zachary Roth, author of “The Great Suppression: Voting Rights, Corporate Cash, and the Conservative Assault on Democracy” (2016). He says it’s a great time for citizen involvement in decisions about what happens in their towns.
“People are looking for deeper ways to engage with the process right now,” Roth said in an Oct. 26 phone interview. “It’s a very fertile time for that kind of stuff, partly in reaction to the assault on all these forms of democracy that we’ve seen over the last few years.”
He suggested the practice of participatory budgeting as a good place for local government to reach out to stakeholders.
“This is a great example of democracy working to give people a voice, in a way that’s not just every four years,” Roth said. “Cities set aside a certain small percentage of their budget for people to meet and propose projects and vote on them. So they decide what projects are going to get funded. It’s usually done through a council member’s office. People can say, ‘We want benches at this particular intersection, or a bathroom in this particular park.’ It’s partly a way to address the real needs of the community, and a way to engage people more in the process. They get more interested and feel more confident to go on to get involved.”
Participatory budgeting could be a way for the township to fund a more robust and in-depth study of the deer population and the potential impacts, positive and negative, for the town’s population. But it remains to be seen whether the board of supervisors will hear the needs of their constituents, or simply move ahead with their own hunting plan in spite of vociferous public opposition to having weapons and hunters in a public park. According to the experts, there is still ample time for them to embrace feedback and work with various groups to ensure there’s a solution everyone can feel good about.
“At the end of the day, we have a lot more commonalities than differences,” said Penn State’s Brennan. “There are compromises that can be made. Getting input from different people means you might find some new, better idea of what to do that suits everybody.”
Sara Stewart is a freelance journalist based in White Township who writes for the New York Post, CNN.com and other publications, and edits for The Week magazine. For The HawkEye, she has covered domestic violence during the Covid-19 pandemic and the White’s Woods logging controversy.