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.
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