Walk-in hunting program could be next big step
A Minnesota Walk-in Program for hunters might be approaching the table this year but it would be a little surprising to see it pass until the state's financial situation is off life support.
There is a strong scent of self interest from the metro area on this one but no matter, these programs pay landowners to allow hunters to go after game on their property. It is working in many Midwestern states right now, including the Dakotas, and a growing number of Minnesota hunters are interested in the idea.
A couple of years ago a guy from Otter Tail County was standing in his farmyard when some Twin Cities hunters drove up and made him an incredible offer. They would pay $1,000 apiece to hunt deer on his property for the firearms season. There were five of them. Going on the proven principal that "if something sounds too good to be true it usually is," he said no. These guys were strangers. What if one of them got hurt and sued him? What if these guys were reckless with their guns? What would they really expect for their money?
Looking at it from the hunting parties' point of view, a grand apiece to hunt deer in a good area made some sense. They did not have their own land and they figured it would be cheaper to just pony up for a good spot. They did not want to hunt public land because of the competition they would face.
If you have good hunting property in a state like Minnesota you have something worthwhile. It is worth more than agricultural land in some parts of the state and that in itself is ironic -- who would have ever thought that the value of the land would be determined by what lives on the land and not be what grows in it?
Hunting is very much about opportunity and that is what walk-in programs are all about. Let's face it, the public lands are over-hunted. You want to pack up and hunt some public land duck slough on a Saturday morning in October you had better get there early.
There is one good reason for walk-in hunting. The days when the land belonged to the people on the nearest farm is long gone. Trespassing laws say that anyone hunting agricultural land without permission is guilty of a crime. The only way you can hope to hunt private property is to own it or get permission. Quite a bit of land in Minnesota is posted and on these signs some landowners write their names while others also include their phone numbers. This gives a hunter with a cell phone a sporting chance to get a quick "yes or no." If it is just the name of the landowner the hunter has to ask "who is this guy?" "where does he live," "how can I reach him?" This is where having a platbook along comes in handy. By the time a hunter has gone through all of the channels they are ready to go home, put their gun away and turn on the boob tube. From the landowners' point of view, being contacted by a lot of strangers is a nuisance.
Walk-in hunting could end a lot of the hassles for both hunters and landowners but the parameters would have to be spelled out clearly and that most elusive of quarries, mutual respect, would have to be found. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there.
A few years back I did a story about a small lake that had filled up with so much water that the man who owned the land around it considered it a private lake and resented the fact that he was not legally able to keep fishermen from using it. The local conservation officer was walking a thin line. He had no authority to arrest the fishermen for trespassing because the "shore" of the lake was a township road, which is public domain. You can own the land around a lake but the lakes themselves are public domain. The landowner bluntly told me that he did not want publicity but he did say that what he objected to the most was all the litter that was left behind for him to clean up in the spring. A story would just mean there would be more litter, and from his point of view, more trespassers. A few months later I asked a farmer who had been fishing on that lake for permission to hunt geese on his land. He said "no" and added that my decision to write that story about the lake was "pretty damned dumb" from his point of view because it drew other anglers to the lake and ruined his fishing.
Access to good hunting land would be just as hot a draw as access to that private lake. How long it would remain good would depend on how much pressure it could handle. Minnesota differs from a lot of Midwestern states in terms of population. Throw the total population of the Dakotas into the pot and it might come a fifth of Minnesota's. That translates into much heavier use of Minnesota walk-in spots if the program is adopted.
Heavy use might not be that bad in the long run. If you can come up with spots that give 10 guys a chance to hunt where only one or two hunted before, you are going to see more hunters in the field. If they happen to bag a pheasant or shoot a limit of ducks or just have a great time, they are going to remember it and come back for more. That will translate into just that many more people who will give a hoot about wildlife and the outdoors.