Protest planner says it's time to 'take a stand' on AOAA
BURNSIDE - The organizer of a protest planned for the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA) Saturday said the idea grew from news of the federal Bureau of Land Management's recent battle with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy.
Matt Reidinger, of Coal Township, said a conversation on Facebook related to "federal land grabs" prompted someone to make a comment that a group should go to the AOAA property and "take a stand," and the idea evolved from there.
He said his primary concern with the off-highway vehicle park is that it is being developed on land owned by Northumberland County. On top of that, county residents will have to pay to use it.
"The people of Northumberland County are the true owners of that land, and now a handful of individuals step in and say otherwise," Reidinger said. "It's time to stand up and say enough is enough."
County officials have said that, while it's public land, those who have used it in the past were trespassing. Also, there have also long been concerns about unregulated off-road riding and partying in the forest and abandoned coal lands, which stretch across five townships, and the property has been used for illegal dumping.
The county decided on an authority to operate the park so it could keep ownership of the land, which still has considerable value because of the coal reserves underneath it.
When asked to comment on the "March on the AOAA Day of Mass Protest," Jim Backes, chairman of the AOAA Authority, said the authority has a 50-year lease for the recreational rights to the land, no different than coal companies have leased the land.
"We have been charged to actively manage the property," he said.
He said user fees will be put toward paying personnel to do that, and he noted the authority agreed to discounts that average 30 percent for county residents who buy passes for the AOAA.
The park has hosted group events over the past few years, and will do so again on the day of the protest. It officially opens to the public May 17 and will be open on weekends for 2014.
Reidinger said he will "peacefully cross the property line" in protest Saturday and is encouraging others to join him.
"I would like to see as many people as possible come and stand with us on this issue," he said. "Bring signs, flags, anything that can relay our message."
The protest is planned from noon to 6 p.m.
The protest will occur on the same day the AOAA will host a new event - the World Extreme Rock Climbing Championship Series, which will bring the Dirt Riot Endurance Race MidStates Series to the AOAA. The event is considered an endurance race along the same lines as the Line Mountain 4 Wheelers events held each year near Dornsife.
"The date of the march was not selected to coincide with that specific event, but I figured with it being on a Saturday that there would be some sort of activity taking place," Reidinger said.
Reidinger said those protesting are encouraging township commissioners to press on with a plan to charge a 5 percent amusement tax for AOAA admissions. The AOAA has asked the township to give it a season or two before implementing the tax.
Commissioner George Zalar said in March the purpose of the tax is to reimburse the township for any wear and tear on equipment, such as fire and rescue vehicles, that might be needed in the operation of outdoor recreation areas of Coal Township, but the authority has said the move could hurt the park before it even opens.
"This is an opportunity for economic development in this region of the county," Backes said Wednesday.
The authority has been taking steps to keep trespassers off the grounds. Authority member Barry Yorwarth reported at the last meeting that volunteers worked to close off 29 access points to the grounds over the last month, and Eye Spy Security was recently appointed as the park's security firm.
"I'm not concerned about extra security being present, and I am aware that the Coal Township Police will be present, but that will not deter our plans," Reidinger said. "I would like to remind the township police that this is a peaceful march and we are not looking to do harm to anyone or any property."
"It is a free country," Backes said. "They have to right to protest if they want."
Reidinger said those who would like to attend can find more information on the group's Facebook page and that there is an option for people to protest without the risk of being cited or arrested.
"You do not have to cross onto AOAA property, but can legally protest on the other public property right next to the AOAA," he said.