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Private use of hunt club irks some

July 17, 1997

By DON AINES

Staff Writer

HANCOCK - Opinions differ on whether the former Woodmont Rod and Gun Club will become a public lands playground for a special group, or whether a Department of Natural Resources proposal to lease part of the property to an Izaak Walton League chapter is a way to maintain the historic lodge at little cost to the taxpayer.

The state is in the midst of negotiations with the Izaak Walton League of America and the newly created Woodmont chapter, which is interested in a 15-year lease on the property.

"This was purchased by taxpayer funds. Any public grounds turned over to a private organization is wrong," said Ron Hovis of Hagerstown, a past president of the Washington County Chapter of the Izaak Walton League and a past state director.

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"Everyone should have 100 percent access to the property 365 days a year," Hovis said.

Founded in 1870 on almost five square miles along the Potomac River near Hancock, the gun club during its heyday hosted half a dozen presidents and celebrities such as Babe Ruth and heavyweight champion Gene Tunney. Politicians, corporate and military leaders and other influential people hunted and partied at the exclusive club.

Two years ago the state purchased the land - but not the lodge - from the Conservation Fund, which had bought out the club's shareholders.

"They have the place and they don't have any money to work it. They've got the place and they don't know what to do with it," Lester Hart said of DNR.

Hart, of Hagerstown, and a charter member of the Washington County Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, said he would be "sitting back and waiting to see what's going to happen."

The proposed agreement, which must approved by the state's Board of Public Works, would give a newly created chapter of the Walton League use of the 15-room, 18,785-square-foot lodge overlooking the river from October through March. In exchange, the league would pay the $150,000 or more a year it costs to maintain the lodge, grounds and two manmade lakes within an area of about 900 acres.

"It's my understanding that there would be no change in ownership and the bulk of the property would be open for hunting and fishing all of the time," said Dr. Paul Wolber, a member of the local chapter of the Walton League and president of the Washington County Federation of Sportsmen.

"Most of the area around the lodge, the artifacts and game farm, the public's been excluded from anyway," Wolber said.

He said the county chapter had no involvement in the negotiations between DNR, the Izaak Walton League of America and the new Woodmont chapter.

"I dare say it will be more open to the public than if you made a mausoleum out of the place," said Paul Hansen, executive director of the Izaak Walton League of America. The lodge and grounds are in a restricted area within the 3,420 acres of which the state took ownership in 1995.

Hansen said the Woodmont chapter is made up mainly of people from the Baltimore area.

That chapter would have almost exclusive use of the lodge and grounds for hunts and other events during the fall and winter, but during deer season, the enclave would be open to the public for hunting under special permit, such as youth or handicapped hunting.

Groups or individuals would have access to the lodge area during the fall and winter by special arrangement with the Woodmont group.

During the rest of the year, the Izaak Walton League of America would manage the lands in cooperation with DNR. Hansen said the Walton League has to develop a management plan for the land over the next two years.

On the question of whether some might object to the Woodmont chapter using land purchased with taxpayer's money, Hansen said that the wildlife management area was purchased by the state for $3.1 million, but the Conservation Fund conveyed the lodge and grounds, appraised at about $1 million, at no cost.

Although the lease proposal is for 15 years, Hansen said it essentially would be a year-to-year deal with all parties having an out. There is a renewal option.

"It's going to be open to anybody, but they're going to have a fairly steep dues" and fees, he said of the Woodmont chapter. The group is expected to put about $500,000 into the lodge and grounds.

Members will pay all maintenance and operations costs, including salary for a year-round manager who will work with the national group and DNR the other half of the year.

After the state bought Woodmont, "We looked for a partnership with a nonprofit entity to help us manage this responsibility," Michael Nelson, DNR's director of land and water conservation, said.

He called the involvement of the national organization of the league "a coup for Washington County."

In the future, the public can look forward to hunting and environmental education programs, seminars, open houses and other activities at the lodge, he said.

DNR spokeswoman Patricia Manown said that most of the acreage is open to the public for hiking, bird watching and hunting all year long.

Nelson said DNR will brief the Board of Public Works on the proposal on July 25.

The Izaak Walton League is a conservation organization named after the English author of that name who was known for his classic on fishing, "The Compleat Angler."

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