I UNSLUNG MY SHOTGUN and army-crawled beneath the barbed-wire fence. Then I got to my feet and hustled along the field edge in the dark. The lights of the farmyard glowed up on the hill, and I walked quickly to create more distance between myself and the neat white house where I imagined a farmer was making coffee and preparing for his morning chores. I’ll admit, what I was doing felt sketchy. I didn’t have permission from the farmer to hunt his ground. In fact, I’d never met him.
But I wasn’t trespassing.
I was hunting on Turkey Hunter Access Program land, which is privately owned ground where public hunting is allowed—but only during spring turkey season. This is thanks to a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources plan that pays landowners $5 per acre to let me (and other turkey hunters) prowl their property.
What an ingenious program, I thought as I hiked the 600-plus-acre farm that seemingly no one else was hunting that morning. The landowner earned more than $3,000 from the state, but the state taxpayers weren’t taking the hit, because the DNR paid the landowner through turkey stamp dollars, federal grant money, and National Wild Turkey Federation funding. The end result is that hunters get access to private land without paying for it, except for a $5.25 turkey stamp.
As it turns out, there are programs like this one expanding across the country. They offer private landowners payments, tax benefits, and habitat improvements through federal or state funding. In return, landowners open their properties to public hunting. In the Midwest, East, and South, where most of the best ground is privately owned, the concept of public conservation and recreation on private land could be the silver bullet for so many of our hunting-access shortages and habitat issues. But these programs are generally so underfunded, obscure, and, frankly, boring that they haven’t gotten the love they deserve. And in some states, the programs are facing competition from outfitters who are looking to privately lease large tracts of land and ambivalence from transplant landowners who don’t like the idea of public hunters on their newly purchased hobby farms.
Somewhere in the distance a turkey gobbled and I picked up my pace. This may be private land, but it’s a public gobbler—and I was determined to beat my fellow turkey hunters to him.
Paying for Access
You’ve probably heard of these voluntary access programs or seen their property boundaries on a digital mapping app. Commonly referred to as walk-in areas, they are all essentially the same in concept, even though each program is called something frivolously different in each state. In Ohio it’s OLHAP, in Kansas it’s WIHA, in North Dakota it’s PLOTS, and in Virginia its POWRR (what these abbreviations actually stand for is irrelevant, so I refuse to spell them out).
All of these programs are funded by federal dollars through the Farm Bill under VPA-HIP (another abbreviation I won’t bore you with by naming fully). In 2019, there were $50 million available for states to vie for. Twenty-six states and one Native American tribe were awarded funding in 2020. The most that any received was $3 million (Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Virginia). While many states prop up their access programs with hunting-license dollars or donations from outdoorsmen, the federal funding is lifeblood for most programs in the East.
In the upcoming Farm Bill, which will likely pass late this year or next, there’s a plan to triple funding to $150 million. While that sounds like a nice chunk of change, it’s a tiny drop in the bucket of what could become the first trillion-dollar Farm Bill.
Of the dozen experts I talked to about voluntary access programs, none could pinpoint a single strong and clear opponent to expanding funding for voluntary public access. The plan to increase funding has bipartisan support. It’s being pushed by two Republican senators from Montana and Kansas and a Democrat from Colorado. And yet, the $150 million is not guaranteed.
“The Farm Bill is a delicate compromise,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. TRCP helped work the first VPA funding into the 2008 Farm Bill. “The biggest issue would be overall constraints in the broader bill. If every program takes a haircut, we won’t get $150 million.
“But nobody dislikes this program.… If you’re a fiscal conservative who believes the states, not the federal government, should be the locus of power, this program is for you. If you’re a fan of private landowners, this works for you. If you like hunting and fishing access, this works for you. If you’re a fan of conservation, this works for you. The program transcends partisan boundaries.”
Even if the $150 million in funding does pass, it’s not enough to create landscape-level changes just yet. Yes, these programs are growing, but slowly.
“That’s a result of the available resources,” says Backcountry Hunters and Anglers president and CEO Land Tawney. “Fifty million dollars split among 26 states is not a lot of cash. You can’t grow quickly like that. The states want to invest, and they’re investing some of their own money, but this program needs to help supplement their investment.”
VPA-HIP doesn’t have a clear battle cry, like BHA’s “Keep it Public” slogan or a compelling do-or-die story like Bristol Bay’s threat from the Pebble Mine. It won’t grab national headlines when exponentially larger and more controversial Farm Bill issues—like the food stamp program, which is currently estimated to cost $1.2 trillion over 10 years—overshadow it.
“Folks may be utilizing programs that are funded by VPA-HIP and they don’t even know it,” says Tawney. “It’s very similar to the Land and Water Conservation Fund.”
In case you don’t remember (and why would you?), the LWCF takes royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling operations and allocates them to local conservation and recreation projects ranging from national wildlife refuges to city parks. After years of bargaining and petitioning by its proponents, the once underappreciated LWCF received full and permanent funding in 2020 under the Trump Administration.
Perhaps with enough advocacy, VPA-HIP will have its day in the sun, too.
Hunters in the East need more public access immediately, or sooner. The National Deer Association released a report earlier this year that stated 88 percent of whitetails killed in the Midwest, South, and Northeast are taken on private land. Let that sink in for a moment: Private-land hunters are killing about nine deer for every public land hunter’s one.
Regionally, 81 percent of the Northeast harvest, 91 percent of the Midwest harvest, and 93 percent of the Southeast harvest occurred on private land. Texas, where 93 percent of land is privately owned, leads the country with 99 percent of its deer harvests taking place on private ground.
“The deer hunting tradition, at least in the East and Midwest, has always been founded in private lands,” says Torin Miller, senior director of policy for NDA. “Farmers hunting their own land and inviting their family and friends to hunt, too—that’s just the way it is.”
But when states and organizations like NDA work to recruit new deer hunters, those folks will need productive places to go. Recruitment and access are core issues for NDA, Miller says.
The person signing up for a Field to Fork program is more likely to live in a city or suburb than on a sprawling farm. They’re not going to want to throw down for an expensive lease or outfitted hunt.
In popular deer hunting states where more than 90 percent of the ground is privately owned—like Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, Georgia, and Oklahoma—voluntary public access programs seem to be the only real option for growing public hunting.
For all of the attention and controversy that Western public land issues drive (think corner crossing in Wyoming, Montana elk management, Bears Ears Monument in Utah), the Midwest and South are home to the vast majority of America’s hunters. For example, in NDA’s 2020 report, Texas alone reported more deer hunters (770,000) than all of the Western states combined.
The Access Answer Hiding in Plain Sight
Even in its early years, a voluntary access program can have a massive impact. Virginia likely would have never have had its first modern public-draw elk hunt without a voluntary public access program (this one’s called PALS). The program started in 2020, and now more than 20,000 acres are enrolled in the southwest region of the state, where Virginia’s reintroduced elk herd of 250-plus animals lives. Most of the elk live in a county with no public land.
“We were able to have our first elk hunt in 2022 on 100 percent private lands,” says Tom Hampton, a lands and access manager for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. “All of the properties but one where elk were harvested were VPA-HIP properties.”
Six hunters drew tags through a lottery and were able to hunt private properties without paying trespass fees or outfitters. All hunters killed their bulls. The biggest was a nontypical scoring 413 ⅞ inches.
The PALS land consists mostly of reclaimed coal mining ground. As part of the program, the DWR pays local contractors to remove invasive species like autumn olive and lespedeza from private lands, then replant them with native grasses.
“Mostly what we’re working on is early successional habitat—grasslands and shrublands—which not only benefit elk but a host of other species, like turkeys, deer, and pollinators,” says Caitlin Homan, a wildlife habitat biologist for DWR. Of course, turkey and deer hunters can access the PALS lands too.
The concept worked on a much larger scale, too. Southwick Associates conducted an economic report of 12 VPA-HIP state programs in 2021 and estimated that these states generated $47 million in combined hunter spending. The states’ programs accumulated 1.16 million enrolled acres, which were used by an estimated 73,900 hunters. This accounted for an estimated 323,500 additional hunting days. Assuming I was allowed to hunt every day, that’s the equivalent of supporting my own personal hunting for 886 years.
But the most interesting figure was the return on investment for individual states. Idaho saw an ROI of $39.51, meaning for every dollar invested, $39.51 was generated in spending. Every state in the report turned a positive ROI.
If I’ve made voluntary public access sound too good to be true, remember that it’s a federally funded program, and with that designation comes no small amount of red tape. First, state agencies need to write detailed grant proposals and compete for limited dollars.
Once their program gets approved, they have to enroll landowners, who are sometimes skeptical of government programs. In some cases, the governor’s office or state administrators have to sign off on deals. And states must get properties approved through the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. That’s plenty of opportunity for a good idea to die. Plus, federal funding lasts for only four years at a time, so states have to get creative if they want to consistently sign up landowners for longer terms.
In other words, states that don’t have their affairs in order will have a hard time fielding one of these programs successfully.
Then, once properties are open to hunting, the state must manage any conflicts between hunters and landowners. That conflict could be a truck blocking a field road, an unclosed cattle gate, or shooting too close to a farmhouse. It takes only one bad encounter for a landowner to decide not to re-enroll.
Plus, there’s that competition from outfitters and other private land lessees, who can often pay more per acre than any state program could.
“We’ve had issues here in Montana where people drive around and see the Block Management green signs and then offer the rancher $10,000, or whatever it is, to have only one person on the property instead of the public,” Tawney says. “Sometimes these programs create a short list for these conglomerates of lessees that are trying to lease a lot of land.”
As more urbanites move to rural areas, there will be more newcomers in rural communities who might not understand hunting, firearms, or the importance of public access. You can see this play out in the Northeast, which has a long history of public hunting access on private land. In Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, it’s legal to hunt private forested land as long as the property isn’t posted.
“The first thing someone does when they move from Massachusetts to New Hampshire is put up a ‘Posted’ sign,” says Mark Beauchesne, who manages landowner relations for New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. “There may have been five generations who had hunted on that land and maybe even been caretakers for it, and now they’re shut out. Those are the most disturbing calls I get.”
New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont all incentivize private landowners to allow public access. In New Hampshire, the state reduces a landowner’s property tax by 20 percent if they sign up for the Recreational Use program, which specifically allows public hunting and fishing. That program celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Beauchesne, a longtime New Hampshire hunter, says the spirit of the program has roots in the very founding of America.
“Before this country was settled [by Europeans], we couldn’t hunt the king’s deer freely,” he says. “But once we revolted, the deer became a trust for the public. People relied on each other in lean times. You allowed your neighbor to hunt on your property and they shared the harvest.”
So when Beauchesne tries to convince landowners, new or old, to keep their property open to the public, he makes a cultural and historic appeal, not a financial one.
“I tell them this isn’t just for hunters, it’s for other recreators too,” he says. “It’s for the good of the community. It’s so you know who your neighbors are. It’s about sharing what you have.”
Beauchesne’s argument will have to resonate nationally if voluntary access is going to succeed on a grand scale. The programs’ payments and benefits will never increase enough to serve as anything more than supplemental income and recognition of a good deed. Landowners who enroll in VPA will do so because they care about conservation and their community.
Back on that turkey hunting access property in Wisconsin, I closed the distance on the lone gobbler, which was roosted in the farthest corner of a clover field. I listened to him gobble and drum as he made his way from the timber to the field. I hastily set up on the field edge, almost certain the tom would come to my calling.
But he acted just like a good public-land turkey should. Instead of coming straight to me, he went to the middle of the field and ducked behind a hill, not 50 yards from me, gobbling the whole time. If he ever poked his head above the shin-high clover, I never saw it. His drumming was so loud that I could feel it in my chest. In a brief moment of panic, I stood up to try to see the gobbler over the crest of the hill and get a snap shot. But somehow he saw me before I saw him and was gone before I could even raise my gun.
On the long walk back to my truck, I saw the farmer cruising down a dirt road in his tractor. I stepped aside and he zoomed by, giving me a big wave and generous smile, as if he had watched the whole hunt play out.
Oh yeah, I thought. I’ll be back next year.
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