Contemporary hunting writers often refer to public lands as second-rate places with a scarcity of game and an abundance of hunters. They prefer to hunt private lands where access and hunting pressure are controlled by a hunting outfitter, believing they have better odds of success. Today’s writers often refer to the place where they hunt as a “property,” which I suppose is somewhat better than calling it an “estate.”
Hunting access to private lands, once largely available for the asking, is increasingly difficult to obtain unless you are willing to pay for the privilege. Minnesota’s rural communities have experienced a mini land rush as hunters purchase tracts of undeveloped land specifically for hunting. Leasing hunting rights, already common in many states, is slowly catching on here as well. In South Dakota, hunters may be charged a daily fee for access to a farm.
For many hunters, especially in Minnesota, paying for access goes against the grain. Since many Minnesotans have rural roots, we have a long tradition of relatively easy access to the land. We also have a wealth of public hunting opportunities. Want to hunt deer? We have millions of acres of public forests. Pheasants? Check out the extensive network of wildlife management areas across the farming region. Ducks? You’ll find public accesses on thousands of lakes and rivers.
While “lack of access” always tops the list of reasons why people either quit or don’t start hunting, it’s fair to say most Minnesota hunters take their access to the land for granted. Often their family and friends have hunted in the same places for generations. The problem with taking something for granted is that, as the old song says, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
Last year, an investment company with extensive holdings of former paper company land south of International Falls announced it was planning to not only close its lands to public hunting, but also to close public snowmobile trails and roads leading to privately owned hunting cabins unless it was able to resolve a dispute over property tax rebates with the Legislature. Part of the rebate deal is that the company provides public access to its lands. While the Legislature has worked with the company to keeps its lands open, a permanent solution has yet to be determined.
Elsewhere in northern Minnesota, the state has spent many millions buying conservation easements on industry-owned forest lands. While these easements have restrictions to minimize subdividing lands for private development and covenants to ensure the forests are managed for timber production, a sturdy third leg of the stool is ensuring continued public access for deer hunters and others. One massive conservation easement in the vicinity of Grand Rapids cost $46 million, so it is fair to say the protection of our deer-hunting privileges does not come cheaply.
On the prairie, providing access to private property takes a different form – a bi-annual lease of farmlands containing wildlife habitat for non-motorized or “walk-in” hunting access. The program, now entering its third year, has been hailed as successful, but expensive. The short-term lease arrangement also means there is an ongoing risk of losing lands enrolled in the program due to changes in agricultural policies or commodities markets.
While conservation easements and leases play an important role in ensuring hunting opportunities, public lands are the sturdy backbone of Minnesota hunting. For instance, the Arrowhead’s Cook County, where I live, is more than 90 percent public land. Most of the public holdings are tracts of the Superior National Forest and extensive state forest lands. While Cook County has the greatest percentage of public land, virtually all northern counties have lots of room for hunters to roam. I don’t recall ever hearing someone in northern Minnesota complain about not being able to find good places to hunt.
Across the prairies, hundreds of state wildlife management areas and federal waterfowl production areas are open to hunting. The lands are purchased and managed to benefit wildlife, especially nesting and migrating waterfowl and, to a lesser extent, pheasants and deer. Lands expressly managed for wildlife often have excellent cover for hunting. The only drawback, mostly early in the pheasant season, is they may attract lots of hunters. Fortunately, wildlife agencies and conservation organizations are working to purchase additional lands for wildlife.
A major funding source for purchasing wildlife lands or acquiring conservation easements is the Outdoor Heritage Fund, which is derived from a portion of the state sales tax. To receive funding, prospective lands must provide wildlife habitat and be open to hunting. Projects are reviewed by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council and then forwarded to the Legislature for funding approval.
In the five years of its existence, the Outdoor Heritage Fund has racked up an impressive list of achievements.
Earlier this year, the Minnesota Legislature enacted new rules that limit the state’s ability to either acquire more land for public hunting through either conservation easements or outright purchase.
Politicians eliminated the property tax incentives that encouraged private landowners to either sell lands or participate in conservation easements. While there was some after-the-fact news reporting on the new rules, there was precious little outcry from the state’s hunting and conservation advocates.
Why were hunting’s watchdogs silent? Some observers say, “Just follow the money.” Every year, tens of millions of Outdoor Heritage monies are funneled through conservation and hunting organizations, which use the funds for habitat projects and land acquisitions, most of which benefit public hunting. Unfortunately, it also means those same organizations are comfortably suckling at the breast of the Outdoor Heritage Fund. When it comes to state money, the Legislature giveth and taketh away. Maybe the organizations are unwilling to risk the wrath of the Legislature, even to defend public hunting.