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Local outfitters raise red flag on new state fees to use waterways

Most outdoorsmen won’t be affected, but tourists and paddlers will be affected

BUCHANAN, Va. – People who want to hit Virginia’s waterways may have to pay more to do it this coming year.

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources is charging new fees for using state access ramps. Those with a boat registered in Virginia, a hunting or fishing license, or other state access passes are exempt as they already pay into the system. It’s meant for those with non-motorized boats using the ramps and facilities but not covering their share, or tourists who haven’t paid anything to the state.

In Buchanan, Twin River Outfitters does half its business with out-of-state tourists. It’s become a local favorite for tubing and paddling. The James River and its winding banks through Botetourt County are the moneymakers, not just for John Mays, the owner of Twin River Outfitters, but for all of Buchanan too.

“This is just upending the apple cart and we’re trying to adjust for it to make it positive so we can meet their needs and still be able to survive as a small business,” Mays said.

It’s why the new access fees to use state-owned or maintained boat ramps are concerning for him and others. Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources spokeswoman Paige Pearson said the agency does not get state funding and did not propose this fee increase, but can always use the money.

“We don’t get money off the top of the pot as many other agencies get, our funding comes from hunting and fishing dollars and license fees so this is a way for us to help with sustained funding going forward,” Pearson said.

Mays said he wants to pay his fair share but says the current system is a logistical nightmare for a small business like his. He said in his experience it takes a person on average five to ten minutes to purchase a day access pass on the agency’s website. When that’s scaled to 200 customers a day, it presents a roadblock that he fears could have serious consequences.

The state recognizes this situation and says Mays isn’t wrong. It’s working on a plan to solve the problem.

“So we are currently trying to figure out a structure for a group waiver for those people, those outfitters, those liveries and everyone like that so they won’t have do to individual ones for individual people,” Pearson said.

Mays said any extra hurdle is another reason for people to take their business elsewhere, and possible sore spots for customers like this run against the relaxing brand he promotes. The town of Buchanan relies heavily on tourism dollars and Mays said he doesn’t want the town to fall behind.

“The administrative requirements without having a way to buy bulk tickets, I just don’t see how we’re going to be able to operationalize that so we’re definitely hopeful that they’ll make a change,” Mays said.

Only the operator will be required to pay the access fee, meaning one fee for a tandem kayak, for example. And meeting any of the requirements like kayaking but owning another state registered vessel is acceptable too.