First, let’s clear something up. Public lands are awesome. They’re an incredible resource and provide amazing opportunities for hunting all over the country, especially in the West. #HuntPrivate is NOT about private vs. public. #HuntPrivate is meant to highlight the crucial role private lands play in providing hunting opportunities and wildlife habitat. It’s meant to give the 8 out of 10 hunters in the United States who hunt private land every year a voice in a social media world of “was it on public?” comments as though the hunter’s experience was somehow inferior or less meaningful if it was on private land.
As hunters, we need to recognize the incredible value that private landowners provide and recognize them as the stewards of the resources that we love.
As one of the founding fathers of American conservation, Aldo Leopold, said, “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.” #HuntPrivate focuses on what that means.
While public lands offer 500 million acres to recreate on, private lands represent 3x that amount!
In the United States, we’re blessed with over 500 million acres of public lands to recreate on. Although that number sounds large, private lands represent roughly 3x that amount (over 76% of the lower 48), with 900 million acres, or 63% of all private lands, owned by farmers and ranchers. These private agricultural lands are some of the most biodiverse and important lands in the country because of their access to water and productive soils, which is why they were originally homesteaded. If we figure out the right model, a majority of these lands can be huntable too.
The best outcome for hunting is for these private working lands to stay working and intact rather than being subdivided and developed in ways that are detrimental to wildlife habitat. As Leopold put it in his 1939 address, The Farmer as the Conservationist, “When land does well for its owner, and the owner does well by his land; when both end up better by reason of their partnership, we have conservation. When one or the other grows poorer, we do not.”
This partnership is out of balance. The USDA’s median farm income projection is -$1,385 for 2022. You read that correctly, an average loss of $1,385. That’s not a great formula for sustaining a profitable business. And in this case, profitability can mean the difference between being able to pay property taxes or selling the family legacy. This economic reality has lead to the fact that between 1992 and 2002, the United States lost 31 million acres of farmland. That’s 175 acres per hour. Nearly half of those lost acres were due to development in rural areas. It all comes down to economics. Farms and ranches generally produce commodities, meaning they are at the mercy of global market forces.
For many producers, the cost of inputs—tractors, irrigation, fuel, hay, fertilizer, even labor—are rising, yet the prices they receive for their products often barely cover those costs, if at all. So how can we change the economics?
The economics on working lands have historically depended solely on the agricultural production from the land. However, we now have the opportunity to use market-based solutions, like LandTrust, to enable landowners to profit from people’s enjoyment of the land’s habitat and access to wildlife resources. By paying to hunt on farms, ranches, and other private lands, you’re helping the land do well for its owner while also giving them a strong incentive to conserve and enhance quality wildlife habitat. You’re also directly supporting the wildlife populations in that area that disperse onto public lands as well. As the old saying goes, “If it pays, it stays.”
When landowners generate income from hunting access on their land, they employ additional stewardship practices to make sure that asset improves. When you pay to hunt on private land, you’re directly paying into habitat and wildlife stewardship on the land you’re enjoying and telling that landowner, with your dollars, that it’s valuable. If it pays, it stays!
When you open up your scope of hunting opportunity beyond public land, you have many more opportunities, especially if you live in one of the 33 states that have less than 20% public lands but represent 70% of all hunters. By participating in the market for private land hunting access, you’re incentivizing more landowners to open up their land for hunting which leads to more huntable acres.
Let’s face it, hunting is a zero-sum activity. One person hunting a buck on 40 acres is a very different experience than 10 people hunting that same buck. By hunting private land, we’re doing two things that will make better hunting experiences for all:
Every hunter that hunts on private land is one less hunter that day on public land. It’s that simple. As we all know, fewer people hunting a tract of land is a better hunting experience. Do you want 50 trucks at the trailhead or 5?
The more hunters who hunt on private lands means more game animals disperse onto public lands. Animals react to pressure. If that pressure is only going in one direction—from public to private—then there will be less opportunity to harvest game on public land. But if that pressure goes both ways, there will be more animals on public lands during hunting seasons. This was proven in a recent BYU study in Utah that looked at elk populations on public lands during rifle season. Only 29% of the elk herd was on public land by the middle of rifle season, having been pushed on to private lands by public land hunters.. After the state took steps to increase hunting opportunities on private lands, they found that 42% of the elk herd was on public land by the middle of rifle season. If you’re a hunter, this should be obvious.
By paying for access to hunt and recreate on private lands, you’re helping keep multi-generational families on the land. This is arguably the best outcome for the stewardship of habitat and wildlife. These families have conserved their land for generations—their livelihoods depend on it—and their connection to the land is more than a simple real estate valuation. If multi-generational farm and ranch families can’t make ends meet, they’ll be forced to sell—and if that happens, it’s only a matter of time before that land is subdivided and developed. Have you ever seen a subdivision get turned back into habitat? We haven’t either. Once development happens, that habitat is gone forever. Someone once said, “cows, not condos.” We agree.