The Importance of Access

Making public lands more accessible for hunting and recreational shooting is one of three main goals of the NWTF Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt. initiative. Here’s how state NWTF chapters are supporting the initiative.

The past is often the best teacher. When it comes to sustainable wildlife habitat, the past has revealed a relationship that exists between sustaining that habitat and our hunting heritage. One cannot exist without the other.

Save the Habitat

The budgets for state wildlife agencies drive the research and work that restores essential habitat for game and nongame species. Hunters pay for 80 percent of that budget from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and a voluntary federal excise tax on the sale of sporting arms and ammunition. If we lose hunters, we will lose the funding base to save the habitat.

The problem is, hunters are struggling to find places to hunt. There are 38 million acres nationwide of federal public lands (U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands) that are not accessible to the public as they are landlocked by privately owned lands. If we don’t have access for hunters, we lose hunters and wildlife.

Save the Hunt

Providing greater land access is one of the NWTF’s major objectives. Federal public lands throughout much of the nation provide the majority of opportunities for most sportsmen and women to hunt and shoot targets. These public lands can be made more accessible by securing conservation easements, other rights of way, or fee-title purchases of private lands from willing sellers. Part of the Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt. initiative is to tackle these challenges and create access to 500,000 new acres for public hunting.

Access is a critical component of this initiative and brings stability much like the third leg of the stool. “Our objectives in doing this access work are extremely important, not only for access but for the whole initiative,” said Joel Pedersen, NWTF director of western conservation planning. 

Going private

Loss of access to public lands is a major barrier to making use of hunting and recreational shooting opportunities. Securing conservation easements and other rights of way are vitally important in meeting that challenge. But in some states where the majority of land is privately owned, opening access to these areas also plays a key role.

“Texas land is more than 95 percent privately owned, and we have a large hunting population competing for those lands,” said wildlife biologist Terry Turney, a private lands leasing biologist for the NWTF’s Texas field staff. By leasing or donating access to their properties in the Annual Public Hunting program (APH), Texas landowners benefit from increased farm and ranch revenues and wildlife management assistance from professional biologists. “The more informed I am about available lands through contacts with NWTF members and others, the more properties I can lease,” Turkey said.

Illinois has become a top destination for white-tailed deer hunters, but more than 90 percent of Illinois land is privately owned. “This has led to a number of properties being leased to the highest bidder, often far above the amount the average hunter can afford,” said Andrew Limmer, NWTF regional director for Illinois.

Finding ways to benefit landowners increases the opportunities for hunting on these lands. Programs like the Illinois Resource Access Program (IRAP) are examples of what the NWTF has already done in Illinois to open new acres to hunters. Landowners can enroll their property and receive a subsidy dollar amount per acre along with a free habitat management plan that will benefit a variety of wildlife, including deer.

“In return, the landowner allows access for youth hunting during three weekends of turkey season,” Limmer said. “The IRAP program has been so successful we had more areas open to youth hunters than we had youth to fill last year’s spots.”

Other NWTF state chapter projects

In addition to the IRAP program, Illinois is opening acres to hunter access via their new hunter dove hunting program.

“The Illinois NWTF state chapter is willing to plant sunflowers on 10-acre private plots to access the land for three days in September to take youth and adults out for their first dove hunt,” Limmer said.

In east-central Arizona, the Frye Mesa project opened hunting and fishing opportunities along with 50 miles of trails for off highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts on more than 20,000 acres of public land.

Supported by major funding from the Yamaha OHV Access Initiative, the NWTF worked with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and other partners to purchase two 40-feet-wide rights of way, totaling 3/8 mile in length, across two separate private properties to provide permanent access to 20,000 acres of the previously landlocked state trust property and Coronado National Forest land.

The NWTF Kansas State Chapter has provided financial support for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism’s Spring Walk-In-Hunting Area program since 2006, providing more than $48,000 to help open nearly 55,000 acres.

“We have averaged 5,500 acres per year through this combined effort,” says Jared McJunkin, NWTF conservation field supervisor for the Great Plains. “This is a great example of what a solid partnership can accomplish.”

The NWTF Nebraska State Chapter provided funding in support of two property acquisitions by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and helped fund the Open Fields and Waters Program. As a result, 3,139 acres of access to public hunting opened on private lands in just one year.

Going for the goal

State NWTF chapters will continue to be integral in achieving the national goal of opening access to 500,000 new acres. So will actively working with all of NWTF’s partners, most importantly state agencies.

“Agencies can always use more dedicated funding to lease properties, purchase signage, delineate boundaries and support staff and all other aspects of public hunting programs,” Turney says. “Cost sharing goes a long way, and locally generated funds can be matched from other sources to create funds that benefit all.”

Turney also suggests that members and volunteers think outside the box. For example, if you have a pecan bottom full of squirrels, you might grant access for some youth squirrel hunts to take place. Another case in point is the tremendous feral hog problem in Texas that impacts wildlife and wildlife habitat. As a result Turney says they are trying to coordinate access to those lands by public hunters to reduce the hog populations. This will not only reduce the feral hog problem, but it also will benefit landowners, habitat and hunters.

We also can assist our state agency partners in locating willing landowners when feasible.

“Finding funds to lease properties or to assist with the purchase of lands from willing sellers is a continuous challenge as we move forward,” says McJunkin. “With a more strategic effort to improve access, we hope to attract those who understand how important hunting access is to the future of our hunting heritage, and who are then willing to support our efforts.”

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