Dave's Got Mail: Paying to Play, Part 2

Readers talk about access to hunting land.

Field & Stream Online Editors

IN RESPONSE TO A COLUMN posted two weeks ago regarding access to good hunting properties and the growing trend in paying to hunt (see "Gone"), I've received so many reader e-mails that I feel compelled to let you do my work again this week. (Thank you very much.)

As before, I am sorry (in more ways than one) that I cannot post all your letters, given our limited space, but here are excerpts from a few more:

I wanted to bring your attention to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, whose main thrust is improving access for hunters. To offset the phenomenon you describe, we are trying to find various ways to provide access for the average sportsman who can't afford a lease.

Our primary effort right now is getting the Open Fields bill passed. It would provide federal support for state programs that give private landowners small, per-acre payments to allow public access. There are several of these walk-in programs up and running, with the most successful being in Montana, Kansas, South Dakota, Wyoming, North Dakota, Colorado, Idaho, and Nebraska. Several other states are currently working to implement similar programs. We offer help, including model legislation. You and your readers can learn more about the program at www.trcp.org/access/index.html.

Bottom line: Our organization's main goal is to address the problem you described. It's a tough nut to crack. But we're trying to get at it.

-George Cooper, Director of Communications, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

I hunt in Colorado, which has perhaps the best hunting spaces, both in quantity and quality, in the Lower 48. One of the problems, however, is that this draws out-of-staters like flies to a gut pile. As a result, hunting pressure seems to be increasing everywhere, which stinks, because then we have what amounts to competitive hunting-people literally trying to outrun each other to get to the elk, or claiming another hunter's downed animal. It just puts a foul taste in my mouth. I realize we all want to hunt, have the right, and pay for that right, but this concentration of hunters seems to bring out the poorer traits in human nature.

-Genevieve

As a minister living in California, I have certain advantages that others do not. Money is not one thing most ministers have, but friendships are plentiful. So while I can't afford to lease land, many friends and parishioners welcome me to their property. However, I see a day when this could end, and although I might someday have the money to lease, paying to hunt worries me. If we, as a group, continue in that direction, we will become just like hunters in Europe, where only the elite are able to go. I hope we never get to that point. It's my hope that others will see this and set aside their personal hunting properties as public land when they pass on. Otherwise, a way of life will be altered-not just from a financial standpoint, but from a cultural, historical, and societal one as well.

-Jeffrey

I haven't resorted to leasing property yet, but that's primarily because I can't afford to. I have helped a landowner manage a section of property in exchange for hunting rights (including cutting wood and watching the area for trespassers). I know I'll have the ability to hunt, but it seems that all the hotspots are quickly becoming unavailable. To tell the truth, I think we'll all be forced to pay for our hunting grounds before long, in one way or another.

-Gale

I fully agree that decent hunting locations are becoming fewer and farther between, especially for waterfowl hunters. I do the majority of my bird hunting along the northern Front Range in Colorado and have witnessed developers take one field aafter another. Large portions of the Platte River, for example, are privately owned and leased to hunting clubs that charge an arm and a leg to hunt. As more hunters lose the privilege to hunt private land, the crowds on public areas get bigger and bigger. In the end, the best hunting locations are reserved for those with the fattest wallets.

_-Brian _

I've resigned myself to the fact that I will have to pay to hunt. Here in rural southwest Nebraska, it's getting more difficult to gain permission from the local farmers and ranchers. I know most of them personally-go to church with them, help at the county fair, etc. Out-of-area hunters have started paying to hunt, however, and the farmers and ranchers have come to expect payment for hunting privileges.

What concerns me is my kid's generation. When I was growing up, I could generally get permission just by asking. My teenage sons probably won't be able to do that, even if they know the landowner.

_-Randy _

Yes, the pay-to-play trend bothers me. In many parts of the country, hunting is becoming a rich man's game. I'm shocked when I see people paying in excess of $5,000 to hunt whitetail deer. The price of a duck blind in California's Sacramento Valley for a season is more than most of my friends paid for their first cars. Membership in one of the better clubs costs more than some houses! And I can't believe what people will pay to hunt wild hogs, an animal generally considered vermin to most farmers and ranchers.

I believe there always has been and always will be a place for guided hunts, but I also believe the emphasis on trophy animals, coupled with our insistence on instant gratification, has led to a huge increase in the number of outfitters who lease up the available land, then charge exorbitant rates to hunt it.

Of course, I write all of this knowing that I'm fortunate, as are many folks in the West, because we still have some of the largest expanses of public land. We still have a lot of awesome hunting opportunities. But even here, those opportunities are fast disappearing, particularly if you don't want to pay to play.

_-Phillip _

I recently paid a landowner who charges a modest fee to use an access road that runs through his land. This, however, didn't deter those who hadn't paid from trespassing. When I got there, the four-wheelers were racing, the yahoos on them throwing empty cans along the road. The rancher had one pipe-steel fence rammed. I'd be surprised if he doesn't raise the access rate or simply ban hunters altogether.

We are in many ways our own worst enemies, collectively. When guys shoot up water tanks, litter the road, rip around on their quads, or, worse, vandalize property or shoot up livestock, we beg to be told to shove off or pay hefty fees up front.

_-Mike _