Build it and they will come. But will they pay for it?
After 20 years of debate, a walk-in hunter access program became a reality last fall in Minnesota -- and was enthusiastically embraced by hunters.
But the fledgling program, which opened 9,000 private acres to public hunting, already is at a crossroads, and some fear it could die for lack of money before it gets off the ground.
"That would be a lost opportunity," said Marybeth Block, the program's coordinator with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Kevin Auslund of Eden Prairie, an avid pheasant hunter and program advocate, agrees.
"Do we hunters let this opportunity slip through our fingers?" he asked.
We'll likely find out this year. The DNR is proposing a $15 fee.
Auslund fears that's too much and could kill the program.
"I'll probably pay it because I'm an avid pheasant hunter, but I think it's going to be a tough sell,'' he said.
The problem: The DNR would need to sell 33,000 of the $15 license validations to generate $500,000 -- which would secure about 25,000 walk-in acres.
Officials say that's a minimum size that's needed.
And other funding ideas -- including adding $3 to $5 to the current $7.50 pheasant stamp or to the small-game license -- have been rejected by many stakeholders.
Pheasants Forever (PF) officials opposed adding a surcharge to the 80,000 to 100,000 pheasant stamps sold yearly.
"We didn't want walk-in funding to take away from any current programs we have," said Joe Pavelko, PF director of conservation. Pheasant stamp money goes to pheasant habitat.
"The $15 endorsement seems to be a pretty good option," Pavelko said. "Then we can let the hunting community decide if it's a good program."
Said Auslund: "I like the idea of a nominal increase across all pheasant hunters. I can't believe pheasant hunters would object to paying an extra $5 to get access to 25,000 acres.''
Pavelko and Auslund are part of a nine-member citizen group that has advised the DNR on the issue. The DNR plans to take the $15 fee proposal to the Legislature soon.
Where's the money?
Whatever happens, hunters will have up to 25,000 walk-in acres available this fall. But there's uncertainty after that. Here's why:
Initial funding came from $2.7 million over three years from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's farm bill. Under the program, landowners who sign up are paid a per-acre fee to allow public hunting. With the federal money, officials had hoped to eventually enroll up to 50,000 acres. Long-term, DNR officials hoped continued federal contributions, along with some type of state contribution in the form of user fees, would support the program.
The DNR enrolled about 9,000 acres, posted florescent green signs on the lands, and opened them to hunting last fall.
"Everyone was surprised at the interest [by hunters] and quality of the lands,'' Block said.
Most of the lands already were enrolled in federal programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which meant they were blanketed with prairie grasses and restored wetlands -- prime pheasant and duck habitat.
"Everything went smoothly, until Nov. 19,'' Block said.
That's when a budget-cutting Congress trimmed $1.2 million of funding for the third year of the program, leaving its future in limbo. Congress is working on a new federal farm bill, but state officials have little hope money will be provided for hunter access programs.
Which means it will be up to state hunters.
"It's time to step up or go home,'' said DNR assistant commissioner Bob Meier. "You get what you pay for.''
An opportunity lost?
The DNR has enough federal money for 2012, and might have some left for a partial program in 2013. But they've been trying to sign landowners up for multi-year leases, so funds are needed now. Leases are bargains compared to buying wildlife lands outright, proponents argue.
"It only takes two months to enroll 25,000 acres in the WIA program at a cost of $500,000," Auslund said. "For the state to purchase 25,000 acres, it would cost $125 million at $5,000 an acre and would take 250 years. Funding the walk-in program should be a no-brainer."
Block summed up both the hopes and frustrations.
"After 20 years of talking about it, now we have an answer: It could work here. Now the question is will people pay for it?"
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org