Funding for walk-in program in Minnesota will create financial challengesWORTHINGTON — There has been a resurgence of interest as of late about the prospects of Minnesota getting or starting a walk-in program.
By: Scott Rall, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — There has been a resurgence of interest as of late about the prospects of Minnesota getting or starting a walk-in program.
By the short definition, the most common walk-in program area pays landowners a dollar amount per acre, per year to allow the public the opportunity to hunt and fish on their privately-owned land.
These types of programs have been around in other states for about 10-15 years. On the surface, the idea seems sound. Allowing public access to these private lands allows hunters and others a much greater opportunity to enjoy the outdoors. Access to a place to hunt has been identified as the No. 1 challenge for those who would like to get involved in hunting. Access or lack of it is also one of the major factors that cause current hunters to give up the sport to pursue other interests.
North and South Dakota have been quite successful in their efforts. They have had the luxury of funding these programs with non-resident hunting license fees. It is this funding load carried by non-resident dollars that has contributed to the costs of licenses climbing dramatically. Ten days of pheasant hunting in the Dakotas costs more than $110. North Dakota was a little friendlier until a few years ago when their costs were raised to about the same amount. Then, they split out the waterfowl portion and added another $100 for 10 days to do that as well.
One of the reasons that these walk-in programs work well in these states is that land owners can continue to do business as usual with very little impact from hunters that utilize this opportunity. They have the ability to gain a little income that just adds to their bottom line. As a sportsman, there is no issue with this. These states have much more pheasant habitat than Minnesota, and with large blocks of CRP, can offer enough additional acres to hunt that it can really have a substantial impact.
Once the lands are enrolled, a map is created that allows hunters the means to find them and utilize them with great success. I have hunted on some of these lands and they ranged from spectacular to dismal. The reason for this is that depending on what kind of land it is, the owner can still graze or otherwise use the property as they normally would. So it all depends on when you get there — before or after the cattle have used it.
These relationships between state game agencies and private landowners have matured over time and seem to work really well in most cases. As a result there have been thousands of additional acres open to public hunting. This is a win/win for all.
So would it work in Minnesota?
The Department of Natural Resources has been charged with researching the possibilities, and I think that the report will be out soon.
There are two great challenges for Minnesota to conquer if this program will ever become a reality. The first is that gaining hunting access is far more difficult in the pheasant range of Minnesota than in the remainder of the state.
In northern Minnesota, some of the counties have as much as 50 percent or more of the total acres in either federal, state, or county ownership. In general, these lands are open to all public uses. Access is not a great obstacle.
In southwest Minnesota on the other hand, (Nobles County specifically), there is less than three percent of the land owned by a government agency. Access programs would have to be targeted to areas like these.
So let’s assume for a moment that this was the priority. With some of the best topsoil on the planet located in Nobles County, it isn’t hard to understand why there is so little pheasant habitat located on private land. It is far more profitable to row crops on this ground that to receive a measurably smaller CRP payment.
There are parcels that contain smaller amounts of habitat and most of those are in the form of filter strips and buffer setbacks along ditches and streams. Most are 60-100 feet wide for the length of the waterway on the property. These would make good spots to enroll in such a program. Other than spots like these, there aren’t many other opportunities in the way of available habitat. The farm ground is just too good.
So if we use a comparison with a Dakota farmer/rancher to a Nobles County landowner it could look like this:
The Dakota rancher receives $5 per acre for 640 acres and receives $3,200. For this $3,200 he allows the public to hunt the land.
Compare this to a Nobles County landowner who has a 25-acre filter strip, and assuming the same rate per acre, receives $125.
The question is whether the $125 is worth it to have the public on your property. The $3,200 speaks a lot louder than the $125. I think that unless the rate was 10 times higher, no landowner in Nobles County would enroll.
The payment issue is far from the only one. With so few spots in much of the pheasant range that could be enrolled, the pressure on these spots could meet or exceed the pressures that exist on the current public land. This creates a dilemma to be sure.
Getting property owners in the areas most needed to enroll with the limited number of acres that are suitable for enrollment is the first challenge.
The second challenge is how to fund it. It is estimated that an all-out effort would cost $10 million per year. We have very little demand from out-of-state hunters. Pheasant hunters go to the Dakotas and big game hunters tend to Iowa or states like Montana and Colorado. This fact makes paying for the program on the backs of non-residents a pipe dream. This means that resident hunters have to carry the weight. I have no idea how many licenses would be needed to cover $10 million, but I would guess that it would be a lot.
So enter the bill in the Minnesota House that plans to pay the $10 million from the newly passed Outdoor Heritage Fund. This is the fund that was created by a small sales tax increase in November of 2008 as a result of a constitutional amendment. It is constitutionally mandated that these funds be spent to protect, enhance or restore forests, prairies, wetlands and other game and fish habitat.
I have a really hard time rationalizing the mindset of the bill’s author that thinks paying landowners for access meets that very specific constitutional mandate. My only thought is, “How far into left field can this person stand?”
So with these challenges in front of any effort to create a walk-in program I have no idea how far this is going to get. I did make one interesting call to the Fish, Wildlife and Parks division in Montana to see how they were operating their access program. I was put on to this state’s program by a local farmer/conservationist Jerry Perkins.
I learned that they enroll a landowner who is then paid a set fee for each hunter per day that he allows on his property. The landowner still controls access and can limit that access to what he feels his property can stand. The land is not open to the public, but public access with landowner control does exist. The property owner is paid $11 per hunter, per day with the average enrollee receiving about $3,000 per hunting season.
I like this idea as it balances the opportunity for public access without landowner control being lost. This would allow the property to be used to its capacity with being overrun and over-hunted.
Montana has more than 1,200 cooperating land owners and the program is funded by (you guessed it) primarily non-resident hunting license revenues. It has been operating since 1996.
Many sportsmen support the idea of a walk-in program in Minnesota. In general, I agree with them but for Minnesota, I do not. Minnesota is a much different state than those that currently have walk-in programs.
We have a state wildlife management area program that is the envy of the nation. If the opportunity to raise an additional $10 million per year exists, then those dollars need to be invested in the current WMA program and make those acres open to the public the first year and every year thereafter. Paying for access for one year gets you just that, one year’s access. Investments made in WMA’s last a lifetime.
We will all have to wait and see how this effort shakes out.
As a member of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, (speaking only for myself), I do not believe these funds can or should be used to fund any sort of walk-in program. The constitution mandates that these funds be spent only for the protection, restoration and enhancement of forests, prairies, wetlands and other game, fish and wildlife habitat.
Funding a walk-in program would breach these constitutional mandates.
If different funding sources and specific target areas can be identified, then I would be open to supporting any idea that can create more hunter access. What means are used to achieve these important goals are yet to be identified.