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Conservation: Accessing Private Hunting Land

Programs that pay landowners to permit public hunting may safeguard the future of access.

Conservation: Accessing Private Hunting Land

Sign of the times? Opening private lands to public hunting is one of the tools federal and state agencies are using to manage deer populations. (Shutterstock image)

One of the more head-turning results of the National Deer Association’s latest report on the status of wild deer and deer hunting in North America was the revelation that nearly 90 percent of deer killed by hunters in the Midwest, Southeast and Northeast last year were tagged on private land.

That’s astounding, especially considering the mantra of “Public Land Hunters” and “Keep It Public” that’s resounded through various conservation groups over the past couple of years.

The reality is that, for most American whitetail hunters in the crucible of deer hunting, private land is where it’s at, or at least where the deer are at. The NDA report didn’t detail how hunters secured access to this bastion of buck habitat, but I can guess it was a combination of paid leases, land owned by friends and family, and old-fashioned door-knocking.

Not one of those access solutions is particularly durable, which is why I maintain we need to pay closer attention to how we hunters both retain and grow access to the most perishable commodity in rural America: private-land hunting access.

The NDA report suggested a couple of solutions. One, widespread adoption of the sort of private-land access brokerage programs that are so popular in the western U.S. Montana’s Block Management Program is a good example. In that case, private landowners are paid a lump enrollment plus additional money for every day a hunter accesses their land. The payments are derived from a portion of hunter license fees, which has created a sort of perpetual motion machine of access generating more license fees, which then pays for more access.

Surprisingly, only a handful of states east of the Mississippi River have adopted this sort of user-pays/user-benefits system. The NDA report indicated that only three of 13 states in the Northeast offer a formal private-land access program, and, unfortunately, the trend is negative. Just nine years ago, six of those Northeastern states had access programs.

The trend is slightly more positive in the American Southeast, where four of 11 states surveyed offered formal access programs last year.

The lack of participation in formalized access programs might be because Eastern landowners aren’t especially interested in allowing just anyone to hunt their land. That’s borne out by a concurrent survey of hunters conducted by the American Hunting Lease Association that found that 80 percent of respondents had a prior relationship with the landowner before accessing the land for hunting.

That same survey indicated that most of the hunting access was granted for free, without expectation of either a cash payment or in-kind gratuities. Some 69 percent of respondents told surveyors with the American Hunting Lease Association that they were not worried about losing their private-land access, but also that they were resistant to paying for hunting access.




One way to read these two surveys—one focused on supply of and the other on demand for hunting access—is that American deer hunters have a lot to lose. One generational change can turn a free hunting spot into a pay-to-play property. That’s where access programs can take some of the uncertainty out of this arrangement that’s helping wildlife agencies manage deer populations across the eastern U.S.

But there’s another player on the field. It’s the United States Department of Agriculture, which delivers provisions of the Farm Bill, revised every five years or so. The Farm Bill for the last couple of iterations has included a provision that allows farmers to get additional federal payments for providing hunting access to their land. The program is called Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP), and it has opened some 3 million acres in 15 states to free public hunting.

The federal program increases payments going to farmers for conservation benefits if they allow some public hunting. It’s not a huge acreage (considering Montana’s Block Management Program provides hunting access to more than 6 million acres), but a provision in this year’s Farm Bill would reauthorize the program at no less than $150 million over five years. That investment could double or even triple the scale of the program.

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Congress will debate provisions of the 2023 Farm Bill this summer, and there’s never been a better time to help shape the outcome to ensure federal funds work for hunters, landowners and wildlife managers. Here are a few provisions to push for as VPA-HIP is renegotiated:

  • Extend the duration of these access contracts from annual to five-year awards. That longer-term arrangement would ensure program continuity.
  • Pay premiums for small parcels of high-quality land. Many of these Farm Bill payments go to large-scale farmers who receive other USDA program benefits. But smaller landowners, like many of those in the East and Northeast, would be more willing to participate if the rental rates increased. Surely access to an acre of prime Ohio whitetail habitat is more valuable than access to an acre of South Dakota wheat stubble.
  • Allow states and private groups to match Farm Bill payments. Imagine how many more participants we could have if local conservation groups contributed to a kitty that doubled or tripled the VPA-HIP payments local farmers received.
  • Consider a “known participant” roster for hunters who access private land enrolled in Farm Bill programs. One of the barriers to entry for some private landowners is they’d like to know hunters who access their land will be ethical and responsible. State programs that certify participants through advanced hunter education courses could ease those concerns and put more public hunters on private land, ensuring this vital link between landowners and hunters remains intact well into the future.

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