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Our first conversation was about "Permissions!" A Landowner's Perspective. If you haven't had the opportunity to read it, you can find it in the Newsletter section on my website, or by clicking on the link above. In this next article I discuss the Riley Game Cooperative and promoting and creating a new era of cooperatives and opportunity for land owners and access seekers. I also highlight a project that our team is in the process of creating called “Sharing The Land”- A Conservation Cooperators Network... connecting landowners, hunters, and access seekers.

In July, I hosted a group called The Hunt in Common on the Duren farm. We talked about conservation and their commitment to mentoring new hunters and what role conservation plays in introducing new hunters to the experience. I'm real interested to how this group connects with access seekers and new hunters and how we can work together. You can find The Hunt in Common on Facebook to learn more about them.


I was able to spend a week out west visiting my friends at Meateater and trout fishing with my buddy Stan O'Keefe. Stan is an avid trout fisherman who has been fly fishing for nearly 50 years. We really enjoy our Trout Fishing in America adventures and we had a great time in Montana and Wyoming fishing smaller streams.


Last, we're really excited about our new merchandise. Proceeds from sales will be used to pay expenses for our work in the Adopt a Dumpster and Adopt a Kiosk efforts, along with also supporting our Sharing the Land project and the upcoming Doe Derby we will be holding during the Wisconsin December 4 day Antlerless hunt. To show your support by purchasing, or donating to these efforts, click here.

"Conservation Cooperatives – Time to Revisit an Old idea" Talk with hunters, especially those new to the pursuit and you’ll hear about two of the biggest obstacles for sticking with hunting: 1. A place to go, and 2. Someone to go with, especially someone who will mentor and share the camaraderie of the hunt. A Place to Go There are many public and open land options for hunters: OnX App identifies public land open to hunting, as well as private land open to the public through programs such as Voluntary Public Access (VPA), or Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Law (MFL) program. These access options are fantastic, especially for experienced hunters, but have shortcomings: Access to those lands are unrestricted and you never know who will be hunting there or when. Often the best hunting days are crowded and it can be difficult for anyone, but especially newer hunters, to navigate those situations.

Current private land access options are straightforward: 1. Own land 2. Be family or friends with a landowner 3. Lease. 4. Seek “Permissions!” (see Meateater Podcast #96 and Permissions! A Landowner’s Perspective.) These access options are great, but again, easier for people already connected or experienced. Owning or leasing land is cost prohibitive for many; family and friend connections usually are just luck and if you’re “cold calling” looking for access, you’ll get a lot of rejections and maybe get discouraged. Someone to Go With Traditionally, new hunters were introduced to the pursuit by family or friends. With that connection usually came a place to go and a hunting group to join.

State agencies and groups like QDMA, Pheasants Forever and Wild Turkey Federation provide excellent “Learn to Hunt” programs that introduce new folks to the joys, challenges and realities of hunting. These programs are designed to get people started, help them with the basics and encourage them to continue. Hopefully, they continue hunting, find a place to hunt and develop some hunting friendships. Those programs are meant to develop new hunters who will continue to buy licenses and equipment, keeping wildlife and conservation agencies funded and the outdoor economy viable. Private Landowners are Key Players in Conservation A good landowner and steward should see themselves as a partner in conservation and managing the “Public’s Game”. Natural resource agencies target landowners and try to entice them to do the “right thing” for their land and everyone’s wildlife. Attend a land management workshop aimed at landowners and you’ll hear experts explaining conservation measures and demonstrating: management plan development; timber stand improvement; controlling invasive species; enhancing wildlife habitat and other stewardship concepts. Active landowners learn very quickly how much time, energy and money it takes to properly manage a property. I think providing access can be key to achieving many of these goals, but landowners are reluctant to enter programs that allow unrestricted public access and the headaches that come with it. Is it possible to have some public access to private land, yet protect landowner’s rights and wishes?

Somewhere in all of this it seems there is an opportunity for conservation cooperation that benefits people, wildlife and the land.

As it turns out, Aldo Leopold was thinking about and working on exactly these kinds of issues of issues nearly 90 years ago! Leopold and the Riley Game Cooperative Aldo Leopold is widely considered the father of wildlife ecology in the United States and one of the most important conservation thinkers of the 20th Century. Most know of his work at the United States Forest Service, as a professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin and his collection of essays and experience as a landowner in “A Sand County Almanac”. Leopold developed the idea of a “land ethic” which describes a principled relationship between people and the land.

In 1931, Leopold was out seeking hunting permissions west of Madison, Wisconsin. Leopold explained “…I stopped at a farmyard for a drink of water. The farmer, Reuben Paulson, was washing milk cans at the well. We talked game. He needed relief from trespassers who each year poached his birds despite his signs; I needed a place to try management as a means of building up something to hunt…Thus Riley Game Cooperative was born”.

Learn more about Leopold and the Riley Game Cooperative here.

The Riley Game Cooperative was a grand experiment in cooperation between landowners and hunters and a testing ground for wildlife habitat improvements, the beginnings of many of today’s conservation programs. The arrangement between Leopold, Paulson and other farmers and hunters who eventually joined RGC were agreements spelling out the arrangement between all the parties involved. It also had a social component, with annual gatherings with discussion and celebration. The Riley Game Cooperative continued for 20 years but faded away after Leopold’s death in 1948. A New Era of Cooperatives and Opportunity? Promoting support and cooperative thinking between landowners, along with hunter recruitment, continues today with groups like QDMA, Pheasants Forever and The National Wild Turkey Federation promoting the concept of landowners cooperating for common goals and objectives.

Pairing non-landowning hunters with landowners willing to exchange help with conservation and other projects for access is the logical next step. Opportunities for learning, mentoring and positive impacts on conservation seem limitless.

Landowners willing to grant access to hunters willing to contribute work for that access, while learning about conservation and the property seems like a perfect match. Hopefully mentoring and friendships will follow.

Simple formal agreements outlining the arrangement that protect all parties can be developed. Once value for various access opportunities and the value of work contributions are established, carving out dates for work and access follow.

This cooperative idea isn't new, but building a framework that can be replicated and scaled is. We're modeling this idea on the Duren Farm and we're learning what works and what needs to be worked through. Our hope is more landowners will think about how they can provide opportunity for access seekers that provides benefit to the present and future of conservation and their land. Keep up to date with our Sharing the Land, A Conservation Cooperative project, by following me on Instagram, checking our email newsletter and looking for our Sharing the Land website, which is coming soon. We're excited to be moving this idea forward!

Updated: Aug 19, 2021

Our first conversation is "Permissions!" A Landowner's Perspective. In the article I tell the story of the changes in landownership and access I've seen and experienced in my lifetime. I also include some thoughts on gaining access to private land.

I recently spent an inspiring afternoon at the Aldo Leopold Foundation and Leopold Shack. Leopold is one of my conservation heroes and I've had the honor of working with the Aldo Leopold Foundation on several projects.

“Permissions!” A Landowner’s Perspective The sign read “If Your Land is Posted, Stay the Hell off of Mine”. It hung on the old gate we used to access our favorite trout stream. My middle school buddies and I looked at each other and shrugged “nope” as we asked each other “Is yours?”. We dropped our bikes and went fishing.

That was my first encounter with posted land. The sign on the old gate had been hung there by the farmer after seeing fresh “No Trespassing” signs on neighboring land that recently sold. The new landowner/neighbor, from “away”, had also been using the farmer’s gate to get to the trout stream. Apparently, he did not want anyone using his land in a similar fashion. The farmer sent a pretty clear message.

Since that time, No Trespassing signs have become a feature on the rural Midwest landscape. I grew up in the 1970s in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. The Driftless was made up of little villages and small family farms. Folks knew or were related to just about everyone. Generally, we could fish, or hunt on properties without even asking and folks could do the same on ours. We did a lot of group hunting across properties. It was a social more of the rural agricultural community.

Rural landownership in the Midwest has changed and evolved over the past 40 years. As small family farms become obsolete, they often get divided and sold. Farms are split and divided into “agricultural” and “wooded or recreational” land. Farmers tend to see non-agricultural land as “rough” or “non-productive”. Until recently, its’ value was substantially less than agricultural land. Agricultural land prices follow values based on agricultural production or Return on Investment (ROI), while wooded and “rough land” values have become heavily influenced by demand from recreational buyers. Recreational buyers tend to not look at economic return, their criteria are aesthetic, feature driven and emotional. The price of woodlots, wetland and wildlife habitat, of low economic value to the farmer, has been driven higher by the recreational buyer. Add the ongoing costs of ownership to the purchase price and owning non-agricultural rural property gets expensive, often more than agricultural land. As recreational land costs increase, farm families trying to keep their property together have seen their “rough land” carrying costs increase dramatically.

Recreational buyers generally do not acquire land to open it to the public and they accept the carrying costs. Farm families who do not want to sell their “rough land” parcels must either absorb the higher costs or get creative and find ways to help pay those costs.

Anyone interested in private land access should understand and acknowledge that access to land for recreation and hunting has value. Should fair minded people expect a landowner to grant access to their land for recreation simply as a “favor”? It is clear what the access seeker gets out of a situation like that, but what does the landowner get?

Full disclosure: The Duren Family Farm, along with a lot of locally owned land, is now posted. We allow access, but for lots of reasons, control that access and who enters our land. Acquiring “Permissions!” Leasing access rights has become prevalent in our area. It is considerably less expensive than owning land and is generally a good deal for the landowner and the lessees. Paying for access understandably sticks in the craw of some folks. There are fair points on both sides, and it comes down to this: The game belongs to the people, but the land it lives on often does not. 95% of wildlife habitat in my county is privately owned. Surrounding counties are similar, as is the case in much of the Midwest.

Again, full disclosure: We lease to 4 serious hunters, for a set number of days, exclusive bow deer hunting rights to our farm. That lease helps to cover the basic costs of property taxes, utilities and insurance for the farm, supporting its financial viability.

After the lessees are done, we grant access to a lot of folks. Most years, over 30 people turkey and deer hunt our farm. I have found a balance of income, access and control I am comfortable with.

There have been lots of articles and podcasts done on gaining access to private land. My thoughts as a landowner are this:

I’m not likely to grant permission to some random person sending me a letter, a social media message or stopping by the farm, no matter if they bring a kid to soften my heart, a bottle of booze or case of beer to soften my mind, or food to appeal to my stomach. And besides, making that kind of “cold call” is not an easy thing for a lot of people to do, especially those just getting into hunting and needing access.

I keep a list of people who have asked for access to our farm and I have a long list of friends and family who are already on the invitation list.

I want to know a couple things about people I invite or grant access to: Do they value access and are they willing to learn about, care for and make a contribution to conservation and the land they want to hunt or access? What do they contribute to conservation outside of their interest in hunting or access? Tips for Meeting Landowners and Understanding Land Conservation There are plenty of opportunities to meet landowners, understand their needs and learn about land management.

Find out about conservation stakeholder meetings, land management classes, workshops and field days offered by state agencies, colleges, universities, landowner groups or conservation organizations. Register for and attend some of these events. You’ll learn about the area, conservation challenges, efforts and techniques. There will be opportunities to ask questions, explain why you’re there and introduce yourself to landowners. Offer to help them with their projects, to do them a favor, in exchange for access. And you’ll have a lot more luck developing a mutually beneficial relationship.

We'd like to hear from you. If you have comments or questions about this newsletter, ideas about future subjects, or anything else you'd like to ask or tell us, leave a comment or send us an email at


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