Sunday, January 29th, 2023
Sunday, January 29th, 2023

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Some thoughts about a Minnesota walk-in program

A couple of years ago, a friend and I made a homeward bound
scouting trip across northern South Dakota on the second Sunday of
the pheasant season. Armed with a map booklet showing lands open to
public hunting, we chose a route that took us past dozens of
federal waterfowl production areas, state game lands, and walk-in
areas.

We were surprised at the amount of hunting pressure. Virtually
every parcel open to public hunting was being hunted. Judging from
the license plates of parked vehicles, the public hunting grounds
were used by residents and nonresidents alike. From a pheasant
hunting perspective, the quality of lands varied. The best cover
was on the federal and state areas, which are managed for wildlife.
Cover on the walk-in areas ranged from marginal to pretty good.

While we didn’t find any pheasant Shangri-las, we learned a
couple of things from our scouting venture. First, the public
grounds get pounded awfully hard early in the season, perhaps
nearly continuously on busy weekends. And second, the best pheasant
habitat is on public lands managed for wildlife.

Like many, if not most pheasant hunters, I do all of my hunting
on lands open to the public. I’ve hunted a fair number of South
Dakota walk-in areas, generally with poor to mediocre success. One
thing I’ve learned is virtually every walk-in area has a decent
slough or brushy draw somewhere on the property, which is why it
was leased by the state for public hunting. Occasionally, you’ll
happen upon a dandy field of CRP grass, but this is the exception
rather than the rule. Generally, walk-in areas are lands worked
hard for agricultural purposes. They may include stubble, pasture,
and occasionally standing crops.

I thought about my experiences hunting walk-in areas while
listening to the discussion of a possible Minnesota walk-in program
at the recent DNR Roundtable. Mark Johnson of the Minnesota Deer
Hunters said he had mostly found marginal hunting ground enrolled
in North Dakota’s similar PLOTS program. I mostly agreed with his
observation; though I have found better cover on walk-ins that are
away from the “hot” pheasant hunting areas.

From the sounds of it, a Minnesota program would be targeted at
pheasant hunting, and rightly so. No matter where you hunt
pheasants, decent public hunting grounds are in short supply. This
is especially true in Minnesota, where the public areas have beaten
hunter trails through the cattails and other cover by the end of
the hunting season. But I’m not sure a walk-in program will work as
well here as it does in the Dakotas.

Why? For starters, most of Minnesota’s pheasant country is
within a two- or three-hour drive of the Twin Cities metro region.
You can leave home in the Twin Cities at 6 a.m. and be in western
Minnesota when the shooting hours begin at 9 a.m. Landowners may be
reluctant to subject their property to that kind of hunting
pressure. Also, much of the good land already is being hunted by
someone or is controlled by someone who is reluctant to allow
hunting, much less public hunting.

But the biggest stumbling block may be cost. Let’s say you were
able to lease land for $10 an acre (very likely a bargain rate in
Minnesota). It would cost $1 million to lease 100,000 acres. If
users pay for the program, how much would it cost individual
hunters? If Minnesota had 100,000 pheasant hunters, the cost would
be 10 bucks each. Of course, this doesn’t allow for administration,
signage, map booklets, or enforcement. And if the lease rate were
$20 per acre, the cost per hunter would double.

The total acreage in a user-based program will be limited by the
number of participating hunters and the amount they are willing to
pay.

If we use the forest as a precedent, the cost of access may be
even higher. The recent access easements purchased on corporate
forests in northern Minnesota have cost about 40 percent of the
land’s market value. Granted, these are supposedly permanent
easements, but even so the cost is extraordinary and mostly borne
by taxpayers who will never set foot in these forests. While the
dealmakers tout these real estate deals as conservation on a grand
scale, it is fair to say they have not been subjected to thorough
public scrutiny or public cost-benefit analysis. Do we want to
embark upon a similar journey to acquire agricultural land enrolled
in 20-year CREP easements?

There are other options. We used to give tax credits for land
enrolled in what was once called “the tree farm program” provided
the landowner allowed public access for hunting. This tax program
was upended a few years ago in favor of a new program that doesn’t
provide for public access. If you want to know the result, reread
the paragraph above.

Mark Johnson suggested we consider buying more land to manage
for wildlife. From the perspective of this hunter, that may be the
best option. We know you can buy 80 acres of marginal farmland,
convert it to grass and sloughs, and grow lots of pheasants, ducks,
and deer. One legislator at the Roundtable complained that
acquiring land for wildlife was unacceptable, because the land then
would be “controlled by the government.” Actually, the land would
be “controlled” by hunters and conservationists. What’s so bad
about that? Moreover, most hunters would agree payments in lieu of
taxes to local governments ought to be fair and reasonable,
addressing a valid objection to acquiring public land.

However, where will the money come from to buy public hunting
land? I’m not willing to wish upon the star of dedicated funding,
even though someday it may be a potential source of funds. But
consider this. In a conversation at the Roundtable, someone pointed
out to me that the $4 surcharge which funds state wildlife
management area acquisitions is only levied on small game licenses.
Deer hunters don’t pay it. Now, since we’ve devised this
pay-to-keep-killing deer licensing system that allows you to keep
buying tags as long as you have more bullets, why don’t we extend
the surcharge to deer tags? Surely, deer hunters need public
hunting land, too.

Here’s hoping the discussion of a Minnesota walk-in program will
at least put hunters on the right track. Too often, land
acquisition and public access are couched with environmental warm
fuzzies to make them palatable to politicians and mainstream
interests. Perhaps it would be better to point out that good
hunting ground has healthy wildlife habitat and functioning
ecosystems. And it is in hunters’ best interest to make sure it
remains that way. That ought to be reason enough to acquire more
public hunting lands.

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