Does Putting a Price on Public Access Create a Private Market for It?

In 2013, Montana State Representative Tom Jacobson saw through the passage of House Bill 444, legislation that created the “Unlocking … Continued

In 2013, Montana State Representative Tom Jacobson saw through the passage of House Bill 444, legislation that created the “Unlocking State Lands” program that provides a $500 tax credit to private landowners who allow public hunting and fishing access to their lands.

A landowner is allowed to enter into four such contracts per year for a total of $2,000.

The program is currently in its initial enrollment period and landowners have until March 15 to submit applications.

In a media release, program coordinator Alan Charles said: “The concept of offering a tax credit in exchange for public access across private land to reach state land is a first of its kind in the nation, as far as we’ve been able to determine.”{C}

For the past several weeks, I’ve been researching a number of programs in which landowners are compensated by state or federal units of government for enrollment in some measure of conservation-related programs, and based on that research I back up Charles’s statement. I have not yet run across a program that provides state tax credits to landowners for allowing public access.

There are, however, several programs in which landowners are provided direct payment from the state for providing public access. Most of these programs are a cash-lease arrangement, however, and not tied specifically to taxes. That said, the upper Midwest does have a fairly robust commercial forest program that provides access to considerable amounts of public land in exchange for reduced property tax rates.

Regardless, the Montana Unlocking State Lands program is a welcome addition to the sundry tools that agencies are using to retain or create recreational access.

But if we are to truly make a difference in the issue of access, it’s going to take much more than one state program.

I’ll be perfectly frank here. When I read Montana’s release stating that the program offers landowners a $500 break on their taxes, my initial thought was this: If they’re willing to allow hunting in exchange for a $500 tax break, why wouldn’t an individual just offer them a little extra money to lease it exclusively?

Putting a Price on Access
Don’t doubt for a moment that won’t happen. In my home state of Michigan, there’s an access program called the Hunter Access Program (HAP) in which the state provides payment to landowners for opening their land to public hunting. There were once several of these parcels located near my home.

None of them are currently enrolled in the program. Every one of them has been leased by private individuals who are paying just a few more dollars per acre than the state program did.

Can you really blame the landowner for doing so?

This concept of compensating landowners for access, either through tax credits or payments from taxpayer dollars is one worth considerable conversation. But if these programs are simply identifying landowners who are willing to trade access for compensation—whether a tax break or a cash payment—then I worry that market forces will ultimately create less access, not more.

And what about programs providing conservation benefits at considerable cost to taxpayers? Yes, we are talking about the granddaddy of them all, the Conservation Reserve Program.

There’s little doubt that the federal CRP program offers tangible conservation benefits. But those benefits come at a cost to taxpayers. I like to believe that most Americans are in favor of helping to fund conservation programs. But how would those taxpayers feel if they learned that CRP payments are a critical component in some land investor strategies?

I’ve utilized walk-in access programs in several states. Similar to the HAP program in Michigan, states such as Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska offer public access to private lands through a pay-per-acre system provided by the state. But are those programs truly creating additional public access? Or are they actually making it easier for lands to become leased by private parties?

In the coming weeks, I’ll take a look at several of these issues. I can’t promise that I’ll be able to provide any answers, but I can guarantee that the topics are worth thinking about. Hopefully the discussion helps steer our public policy in a direction that benefits both wildlife habitat and recreational access. And doesn’t create incentives for the market to privatize either.