Last autumn, just when bucks were rubbing the saplings raw, a housing developer clear-cut the old stand of white oaks off the ridge I'd grown up roosting gobblers on. Now, I'm not anti-development--I enjoy having a roof over my own head--but it hurts when your woods get milled into board feet so some urban types can park their SUVs in another maze of duplexes. I found myself thinking that one of these days a deer will tiptoe across a manicured lawn on that ridge and a homeowner will look out his bay window, put down his morning latte and say, "Isn't that cute?" And he'll really think so...until he hits the deer with his SUV.
Okay, I was bitter. I sought solace in the company of other evicted sportsmen--asphalt has smothered a lot of hunting grounds lately. Talk about a downer. I came across an article in The New York Times that said hunters are a dying demographic--the writer seemed to think it had something to do with evolution. I wanted to open a season on liberal journalists. I read that the Wildlife Management Institute cites loss of hunting land as the biggest reason outdoorsmen are leaving the sport. I envisioned Europe's haves and have-nots. I even listened to an old-timer reminisce about "the good old days." Gone forever, he thought.
Things sure seemed bleak. Then the phone rang.
It was Jim Range, a Washington lawyer and lobbyist for sportsmen who recently founded the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), an umbrella organization for hunting and fishing groups that by themselves can't make a thing happen in special-interest Washington. Range said all I had to do was get on a plane to Pierre, S.Dak., and he'd show me a novel way to open private lands to sportsmen.
So there I was in South Dakota last October thinking that, sometimes, seeing still isn't believing. All around pheasants were flushing in numbers more fitting for ducks, yet they weren't ringnecks raised like chickens to be shot on their virgin flights; they were wild birds being driven by hunters working behind three exuberant yellow Labs.
Pheasants flew and ran. I missed once, then connected. The ringneck fell and a Lab ran in front of a wagging tail to retrieve the oddly beautiful bird. The next 30 minutes were a ruckus of flying pheasants and booming shotguns. Then it was over and we were eating pheasant stew as we listened to Bill Smith, a senior wildlife biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, sum up how their program created a sportsmen's theme park of a state: "We created this open space by going to private landowners and negotiating with them one at a time. We've enrolled nine hundred thousand acres for the ninety thousand nonresident sportsmen who visit us each season, hunters who spend one hundred and twenty-two million dollars in South Dakota annually. Funding for the Walk-In Area Program currently comes from a five-dollar surcharge on hunting licenses. With a little more money there would no limit to what we could do."
Smith was a visionary, sure enough, but Range seemed to think we hadn't seen anything yet.
The High Road to the Future
We crossed into Montana the next morning and found that the road from Ekalaka, Montana, to the Ringling Ranch (the next stop in our quest) doesn't have a name. We were simply told to take the road out of town that goes east. The compass on Range's rearview mirror led us to the back of the high school, behind a snowy field surrounded by a hundred fans cheering on a game of six-on-six football, to a rutted dirt road that meandered east. We crossed our fingers and drove. Fifteen miles out into a rolling grassland, we saw the sign-up box.
All a sportsman has to do is jot his name on the sheet in the box and he's free to use the land. We were being introduced to Montana's Block Management Program. Because landowners get paid according to the number of people who use their property, they have a financial incentive to maintain healthy game populations.
The average property enrolled in the program in Montana makes $3,000 annually. "An enterprising rancher can make more by charging day fees," says Alan Charles, coordinator of landowner/sportsman relations for Montana, "but the landowners enrolled don't have to deal with hunters constantly begging permission. Every year more landowners want to enroll in the program than we can afford."
Each contract is worked out individually. For example, if a farmer trying to control his deer herd wants to participate, he can have the contract state that only does may be harvested.
A mandatory Hunting Access Enhancement Fee ($2 for residents, $10 for nonresidents) funds the program. Thanks to maps printed by the state, some 180,000 hunters used these areas last year.
Paul Ringling, a member of the famous circus family, was waiting for us at his ranch. He greeted us with bright eyes that belied his 84 years and told us he was proud that everyday sportsmen are able to hunt his land. Like many ranchers, who are often land-rich but cash-poor, he'd rather not have his property be exclusive to rich people from distant cities.
Ringling took us to a sharptail covey. We dropped in below the birds, and several hours of following Range's German shorthair later we had game bags full of sharptails and memories full of scenery we could visit anytime we got the urge. And we were just looking at a small piece of the 8.8 million acres enrolled in the program.
About a dozen states now have active private-land access programs. In fact, the biggest complaint from hunters in Kansas (a state with little public land) used to be that there was nowhere to hunt. Then the state started a Walk-In Access Program. Now, with one million acres opened to hunting, sportsmen have had to gripe about other things.
The only problem has been raising enough funds to cover the costs. But Range said he had that figured out.
We spent the night in Ekalaka, a town with an unpaved Main Street with Old West--style wooden walkways linking dusty bars, dimly lit restaurants and a hotel with clean little cubbyholes for rooms. It was the kind of place where it was fashionable to wear hunter orange and three days of stubble.
Seated in a room with dozens of happy hunters who were this area's economy, Range revealed his vision. "Thirty-four million people hunt and fifty million fish annually in the United States. We can use those massive numbers to create a lasting bond between landowners and sportsmen. This will keep our numbers strong and will benefit the species sportsmen have brought back from the brink. The West is blessed with large swaths of public land. The rest of the country isn't."
A loud "damn right!" came from a nearby table.
Range plowed on: "Now that I've shown you successful walk-in programs, you're ready to hear about the Open Fields Initiative. Senators Kent Conrad [D-ND] and Pat Roberts [R-KS] have introduced the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program Act of 2003. This legislation will authorize fifty million dollars annually, through 2007, to fund state efforts to develop programs that expand public access to private lands. The money would come from existing funds in the agricultural bill. That's it, boys--we're going to get landowners and sportsmen together across the country." He stopped for a dramatic pause and then finished by saying, "That's the future I want to see."
The hunters at the next table joined us for a drink. The concept was falling on fertile ground. I found myself hoping the funds would start a private-land-access program in New York. The future of hunting can be a bright one.
Log on to www.trcp.org, click on the site's "Activist's Toolbox" and send an e-mail or letter to your Congressmen to urge them to support the Open Fields Initiative.
Wide-Open Hunting Listed here are some of the numbers of acres already enrolled in private-land-access programs.