Will Hunt…for Land?
Land … They ain't making any more of the stuff. — Will Rogers
America tuned in to color TV. Teenagers danced to American Bandstand, and rock 'n' roll shook up a conservative nation. But John Mullin wasn't diggin' the Fabulous Fifties.
Life in America's Heartland was far more serious than the I Love Lucy sitcom that made him laugh. His reality was black and white: diversify or lose the farm.
Despite plenty of work, the Mullins struggled when corn prices fell, farm costs rose and the family got bigger. With too many bills and not enough cash, Mullin charged neighbors to hunt pheasants that helped themselves to his crops. His enterprise worked so well that the old farmland took on new life as Iowa's first private hunting preserve. Soon, people nationwide paid to shoot upland birds and mallards at Arrowhead Hunting Club.
Renting sporting rights was unheard of in the 1950s. Now it's as common as a trip to Wal-Mart. As private land costs soar, public land gets more crowded and landowners latch on to guaranteed moneymakers, leasing is bound to become more popular.
In some states, the hunt for land has already become larger than the pursuit of game. "Access" is the new buzzword. "If you ask hunters about their biggest concern, land access is No. 1," said Mark Damian Duda, who conducts surveys for state wildlife agencies.
Rural land is disappearing. People who used to take Sunday drives to the country want a piece of it themselves. Super-sized houses are crowding hilltops, shrinking open fields and gobbling up good hunting. Across the nation, from Iowa to Georgia, farmers who believe ethanol has a promising future are planting corn and soybeans at break-neck speed. What little land is left can't support a chickadee much less a pheasant, so sportsmen are calling it quits.
In Iowa, the number of in-state hunters has dropped 26 percent in a decade, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Other states have experienced similar declines. One in three outdoorsmen told the agency no place to hunt forced them into another hobby.
We've seen land prices climb $1,000 to $1,500 in the last 18 months, Iowa corn grower Collin Jensen told The Progressive Farmer magazine when it researched outrageous land values across the rural U.S.
Last year, sporting land in Iowa reached $2,500 an acre. It's worse in Illinois, where farmland brought $6,000 an acre when corn climbed to $4 a bushel. Hunters paid lunatic prices as a result: anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 an acre.
More people want recreational tracts in Illinois than there is land available, said Dale Aupperle, owner of the Heartland Ag Group, a farm management and real estate company in the central Midwest.
A Commoner's Sport, A Rich Man's Wallet
Tony Dean — a sort of Walter Cronkite of Midwestern sportsmen—said he fears a day when hunting and outdoor recreation become pastimes of the rich and famous. "Our forefathers left a European system in which wildlife and land belonged only to landowners," he said. "We don't want to go back to being like the Europeans.
The high cost of hunting trophy animals isn't new. In a 1978 case, Baldwin v. Montana, the U.S. Supreme Court proclaimed, "Elk hunting by nonresidents in Montana is a recreation and a sport. Apart from license fees, it is costly and obviously available only to the wealthy nonresident or to the one so taken with the sport that he sacrifices other values to indulge in it.
The stats tell a story of their own: Nationally, the number of hunters with above-median incomes has declined just 3 percent in 15 years. Over the same period, hunters with below-median incomes have dropped 16 percent. The price of recreational land is just as lopsided with no guarantees of leveling any time soon.
Supply and Demand
In 2001, leases in the U.S. averaged $670 per property for the hunting season, up 150 percent since 1991. Ridiculous, yes, but the long-term effects could be even more damaging. Granting access to the highest bidder drives up prices, and prices some people out of the sport completely.
Dave Hurteau, a columnist at Field and Stream magazine, pushed plenty of emotional buttons when he solicited reader comments on elevated land prices. One guy wrote: "My lease cost $850 the first year, $1,100 the second, and $1,300 the third. Three years was enough for me."
Another said, "Today a lease with trophy potential in Texas can go for $3,500 a gun and up. And I mean way up—around $10,000. It has gotten totally out of hand."
In recent years, it has become nearly impossible to price land too high in Texas, said Charles Gilliland, a research economist at the Texas Real Estate Center. Here's why: Foreign investors own nearly 430,000 acres of timber, and they pay outrageous prices to get it—sight unseen. And recreational land is as valuable as the oil that gushes out of the ground. In Hill Country, for instance, average hunt land sells for $7,800 an acre.
Access and Opportunity
In many cases, successful game management has made balancing cost, access and opportunity even worse.
Consider Utah, where cows and immature bulls made up most of the elk herd. To give hunters trophy opportunities, wildlife managers limited the number of mature bulls killed. Today, record-book elk are taken each year.
As the state's reputation for elk hunting grew, so did the number of people who wanted to shoot them. In 1994, after the state implemented a bonus-point system for limited elk hunting, 34,274 people applied for 776 permits. Of those, only 1,193 were non-residents. In 2005, 58,357 sportsmen applied for 1,552 permits. The number of non-resident applications increased to 12,748. So while the number of available permits doubled, the odds of drawing a permit actually dropped.
Game management impacts hunting opportunities on private land, as well. When the biggest bulls were raghorns, landowners barely sold the permits they were allotted. Those that weren't sold were given away to friends and family. As bulls got bigger, so did the price to hunt them. These days, it's hard for landowners to let Uncle Joe hunt for free when permits go for $5,000 to $12,000, and up.
It's just as difficult to criticize rural landowners like Joe Murdock for profiting from an economic windfall. After 40 years, his family land is making enough money to pay the property taxes. A corn and soybean grower rents what's worth farming. An outfitter leases the rest.
The main thing is to get a few of the deer that plague the renters of the land, said Murdock. "It also provides income for 'recreational land' that doesn't produce anything."
The market value of his land has increased six-fold since he bought it, mainly because hunters pay high prices to hunt in Illinois.
Recreational land is property such as timber and ponds that isn't cropped, grazed or developed. Today, it has a financial value property owners are trying to reap. A second harvest, so to speak. Per acre, sporting land brings $2,500 to $3,500 in west-central Illinois. Ten years ago Murdock was lucky to get $500.
"We need local people to say, 'Hey, why don't we get together and pay George what his property is worth,'" said Illinois landowner Bob Lowry, a licensed outfitter with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
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