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Master Hunter Products

Opening the Gates

"[S]omewhere along the line sportsmen have undergone a subtle, but evolutionary, adjustment in our view of private property.

by Daniel D. Lamoreux Reprinted with the permission of Petersen's Hunting. Visit their website at

Years had passed since Frank last saw this place. Nonetheless, his heart raced as he turned down the old gravel road. Youthful memories of outdoor adventure and exploration played one over another across the big screen in his mind.

His family never had title to any of this land. But it was a different world when he was a kid and the boundless freedom to hunt, fish or just wander aimlessly through the fields and forests of his boyhood home was Frank’s fondest recollection.

Taking just one more pheasant, for old time’s sake, would be the highlight of this visit.

Frank turned into the lane of his favorite farm and locked up the brakes. His excitement was gone, replaced by utter disappointment. Mounted dead center on the bright orange gate which blocked his path was a large sign:

No Huntin’
No Fishin’
No Nothin’

Frank is a fictional character but this scene and it’s underlying problem are all too real. Access to huntable ground has arguably become the number one concern of today’s sportsmen.

This dilemma elicits responses from the hunting public that range from frustration to anger. More often than not, we ultimately feel powerless to stop this trend.

The good news is that the solution is actually quite simple. However, “simple” doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as “easy”. To open gates we must first open minds.

There are three primary issues at the center of the access debate. The first is the philosophy that wildlife in America is a public resource. In short, the animals belong to all of us.

Second is a recognition that the majority of prime habitat is located on private property. Without good stewardship, preservation and proper management these lands will not remain available for wildlife to grow and prosper.

Finally, private landholders have every legal and moral right to decide who does or does not have access to their land. Just as you feel justified in telling your neighbor to keep his dog out of your yard, farmers and ranchers have the prerogative to deny the use of their land to others for any purpose, hunting included.

Fortunately, there are places in this country where people have found a way to equitably and successfully address all three of these issues. This “new” approach is called “Incentive-Based Land Management”. In plain English, it simply translates as “creating a win-win situation”.

The State of South Dakota is one such place.

According to Bill Smith, Program Administrator for the Walk-In Area Program (WIA), the Wildlife Division started their program as a test in 1988 to provide guaranteed hunter access to private lands. That first year they were able to secure 23,000 acres with a goal of increasing to 50,000 acres over time.

The depth of their accomplishments is best illustrated by the numbers. The 2001 season saw 819,000 acres of private lands made available, without charge, to the general public for hunting purposes.

The system is working because everyone who is involved is getting a reasonable return on their investment.

Landowners join the program by choice and sign a contract with the Department of Game, Fish & Parks (DGFP). That contract provides the owner with liability assurances to protect them and offers an incentive payment at the end of each season in compensation for the use of their land.

Through this program, the DGFP can provide the hunting public with considerable access and can do so at a fraction of the cost which they would have to bear in order to lease or purchase similar properties.

Sportsmen gain access to prime hunting territory without having to pay trespass fees and without the inconvenience of having to register, draw or get special permits for these locations. Any public hunter in possession of a valid license during open seasons can make use of these properties.

The process of finding a place to hunt is also made simpler through the production of a guide book which DGFP publishes annually and which identifies participating landowners and access locations.

With this track record as their guide, DGFP is examining other options for further increasing access opportunities in the future.

Despite the success experienced in South Dakota, this specific type of program isn’t necessarily for everyone. “There are a number of reasons why we don’t do Walk-In programs,” explained Mark Gudlin, Assistant Chief/Wildlife Division for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA).

“There are huge differences in demographics between Tennessee and places like South Dakota or Kansas,” he said. “The western states have so much land with fewer people. In Tennessee, the average farm size is 130 acres.

“With a denser population, smaller farms and more competition from existing leases, friends and families (who are) already using these limited resources, it’s just not available.” Instead, the Volunteer State has looked to it’s large commercial timberland companies to provide expanded hunting opportunities.

The cooperative agreements that have been made with these corporate landholders are pretty straightforward. The landowner in each case provides hunting access, collects their own fees and administers the permit process. TWRA provides enforcement of rules and regulations.

During the peak years of this program, approximately 800,000 acres of private land were made available for public hunting. However, Gudlin indicated that their program is entering some hard times.

Last season saw the available lands cut to 500,000 acres. “The economy is the issue,” he explained. “It’s hard to say what’s going on in the commercial timberland companies for the future.”

Gudlin indicated that there may be some buy-outs of existing owners which would require renegotiation of access issues with prospective new owners. Additionally, they have seen some land removed from the program due to an increase in private leases for hunting purposes.

“Some of these private leases may be paying as much as ten dollars an acre,” Gudlin said. “When you average it out for public access, these companies might be making only about a dollar and a half an acre from permits (under our system).”

In the final analysis, corporate landowners are no different than private individuals. The land must support itself through it’s various uses or those uses cannot be maintained.

While the future of this particular Tennessee program may be unknown at the present time, Gudlin made it perfectly clear that the TWRA is analyzing it’s options on behalf of the hunting community. Cooperative agreements have worked in the past and they hold the best potential for guaranteeing access in the future.

The Wyoming Game & Fish Department (WGFD), on the other hand, is a relative newcomer to the concept of Walk-In hunting programs but they found early on that two separate plans were necessary to accomplish their specific goals.

According to Valerie Sailer, Administrative Assistant in WGFD’s State Access office, the WIA program in Wyoming is managed in a similar manner to that found in South Dakota.

Landowners are paid a per annum stipend for allowing free public access to their properties. Wyoming has gone a step further by adding fishing access to their program and compensates landowners for angler access based upon the amount of pond acreage or stream miles that are made available.

“When (we) first looked at the pilot program in 1998, there were concerns,” Sailer said. “But we conducted a survey in 2001 and found overwhelming support. Game & Fish has since made this a new permanent program.”

A second, similar program was started during the 1999-00 season which is called the Hunter Management Program (HMP). Sailer explained that this secondary access plan was put into operation to address landowner concerns and increase available acreage.

Typically comprised of the larger ranches, the HMP participants also wanted to have a hand in granting access to hunters but felt the need for a more controlled access program than was offered under WIA.

Under HMP, access is still granted without trespass fees but hunters are required to register and obtain a written permission slip before entering the property.

Matt Buhler, the State Access Director, said that the landowner agreements were made on an annual basis while the programs were in the experimental stage. Now that these programs have become permanent, the WGFD is planning on upgrading all agreements to mult-year documents (up to five years) in order to add more stability to the program.

Program expansion is on the table for Wyoming’s future and Buhler said that sportsmen can have an impact upon where it goes from here. “They can notify us of potential new areas to add,” he said. “It’s also important that hunters know that their donations (through Access Yes) are directly earmarked for easement access. Those dollars aren’t used for anything else.”

Buhler also recommended that resident sportsmen volunteer some time and labor on habitat enhancement projects on these properties when they have the opportunity. “It’s good for the property, the resource and the hunting community’s public relations.”

For a variety of reasons, there are some who believe that it is inappropriate for State government to dispense monies on this type of endeavor. This was part of the criticism received by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources when Access Illinois Outdoors was started.

However, according to Judy Smith, the State was never heavily involved in the program and contribute nothing today. Judy Smith is the Office Manager for Two Rivers Resource Conservation and Development, Inc., a not-for-profit organization which both started and currently manages the Access Illinois Outdoors (AIO) program.

AIO is but one of many projects that fall within an overall agenda of rural development and it’s reach goes far beyond that of the hunting community. Camping, hiking, biking, fishing, bird watching and photography are just a few of the other outdoor interests which are served by this program.

AIO has opened up 154,000 acres of private lands to some 1,800 hunters from 37 states since the program started in December of 1994. And, while they certainly encourage non-resident sportsmen to travel and hunt in Illinois, the majority of those who have taken advantage of this program are residents of that state.

In the simplest of terms, AIO is a kind of matchmaking service.

Any landowner can apply to the program, free of charge. They complete an application which outlines the type of activities allowed, along with details about available acreage, location, restrictions and other information.

Members of the public who wish to take advantage of these areas are charged a $25 annual membership fee to join the program. They also fill out an application which details their needs, wishes and expectations.

The Two Rivers staff then match hunters with potentially compatible landowners and provide those property owners with copies of the hunter’s application for screening. From this point, the landowner contacts the hunter to work out details.

“In the beginning of the program, property owners and hunters sometimes exchanged trips or bartered for access,” explained Smith. “Or sometimes hunters helped out on the property. But as the program grew, trespass fees became customary.”

Smith advised that Two Rivers is not involved in those negotiations in any way. “They may work out a cost per day, per week or per acre,” she said. “It’s a very individualized process and it’s between the landowner and the hunter.”

The only real complaints Smith has received about the program come from the sportsmen’s corner. “We’ve had groups that have said our program is why they can’t find a place to hunt,” she explained. “What they can’t find anymore is a place to hunt for free! In reality, we have opened places to hunt, because they never did (allow it) before.

“This is a good investment in rural America. If they can turn a profit from their assets, we can keep Mom and Pop on the farm longer.”

That is, after all, the bottom line concerning access to private property. We must guarantee that land remains in a huntable condition in the first place. This objective is the foundation upon which the International Hunting Land Association (IHLA) was built.

The IHLA is a non-profit alliance of sportsmen who saw a long-term need and decided to address it in the most direct way possible. “We want to be nationally recognized as the group that saves hunting land,” explain John MacEwan, Chairman of the Board. “Our whole organization is geared to opening land.”

Their philosophy is simple. Buy or lease land for the express purpose of preserving hunting opportunities. “And we don’t want to get rich doing it,” MacEwan said. “In fact, we’re all volunteers at this point.”

Still a fledgling organization, at about three years old, the group has grown to approximately 175 members. While interest is continually on the rise, he described how the Association is currently caught in the horns of a dilemma with prospective new members.

“I’ll occasionally get a call from a hunter who asks, ‘what land do you have?’,” MacEwan explained. “When I tell them we haven’t secured any property as yet, they’ll sometimes decide to wait on joining until we do have land. It’s a Catch-22 because we don’t have the money (to buy or lease land) until they join.”

Despite this minor predicament, the young organization is moving ahead quickly and MacEwan sees good things ahead. “Yes, we’re still without land, but this will be the year,” he said. “We’ve grown internally and the business end is a lot more solid. We’re reducing administrative expenses and keeping money in the bank. This year we will be focusing on getting grant writers and becoming committed to financing, fund raising and a strong membership drive. Our infrastructure is now in place. Funding is the only thing stopping us.”

There are many things about these programs which are unique to the areas and constituents they serve. With the proper motivation and innovative ideas, however, each of these programs addresses the access issue with positive results and a promising future.

As different as each approach may be from the others, they share certain commonalties. The one concept that is fundamental to all is as old as time itself; if you want to have or use something that belongs to another, you must compensate them for it.

We visit the grocery store, the car dealership and the sporting goods outlet and would never expect to shop for free. Even using something temporarily has its cost as we rent videos, lease apartments and play at theme parks for a day. Paying a price for each is expected.

Sadly, somewhere along the line sportsmen have undergone a subtle, but evolutionary, adjustment in our view of private property. We have adopted a feeling of entitlement that has changed the hunter/landowner relationship we once enjoyed and, unfortunately, took for granted.

Our Fictional Frank never thought of baling hay, chasing loose livestock or sharing his wild meat with the farmer or rancher as “payment”. That was just something you did in those days.

In reality, there is no free lunch… and there never was.

In many ways, our contemporary failure to appreciate the value of private property has led to this proliferation of “no trespassing” signs on all those places we once thought of as “ours”.

We can bring down those signs. But in order to open gates, we must first open minds. Our own.