Points North: Minnesota Wildlife Habitat: Rent or Buy?

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When you are young and getting started in the world, one of your first challenges is deciding whether to own or rent a place to live. While the answer differs depending upon your personal situation, it is fair to say most folks who have a stable income and intend to live somewhere for a few years or more decide it is best to buy a place. Owning a home is fundamental aspect of life in our state, an anchor of stability and security.

Now the “rent or buy” question is a conservation debate. Politicians are afflicted with acquisition anxiety due to the new habitat monies available via Legacy funding. County commissioners and township supervisors across the state, leery of lost property tax revenues, are pressuring politicians to just say no to public land acquisitions. And for farm and forest landowners, this means Legacy money becomes another revenue stream as they essentially rent their land—through easements, set aside programs, etc.—to provide habitat.

Now politicians are considering adding another habitat program to the mix—walk-in hunting. This program, common in the Dakotas and other states with vast private acreage and a low population, pays landowners an annual rental fee to allow public hunting on their property. Generally, the land enrolled in the program contains habitat to support wildlife, but it’s usually not the best of the best (or even second best) hunting land. If it was, someone with deeper pockets than the state would already be leasing it.

The reason walk-in hunting struck a chord with Minnesotans is because so many of them travel to the Dakotas to hunt pheasants. If you have limited access to hunting land (a common problem for traveling bird hunters), the walk-in program gives you more room to hunt. And if a walk-in hunt adds a bird or two to the bag, so much the better.

The big question is whether a walk-in program would work the same way in Minnesota. Generally, it is most difficult to get private land access to hunt pheasants and turkeys, because millions of acres of public lands and waters are available for hunting deer, grouse and ducks.  But will a walk-in program actually improve hunting access for pheasants and turkeys? Or will the monies be spent elsewhere in the state?

For starters, most properties in Minnesota’s pheasant and turkey range (even though one bird lives in fields and the other in forests, their ranges overlap) are much smaller than the big farms and ranches in the Dakotas. On many Minnesota farms, intensive agricultural practices greatly limit the amount of land that is wildlife habitat, with the notable exception of acres enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program. Also, much of the state’s prime turkey and pheasant hunting is within two hours of the Twin Cities. How many landowners would be willing to open their property to an onslaught of urban hunters?

It is reasonable to assume a Minnesota walk-in program would be most effective in the northern forest and the farmland of the northwest—areas a long way from the metro population base and arguably with an already sufficient amount of public hunting land. If that is the case, perhaps hunters (who will shoulder the cost of a new walk-in program) might pay to rent hunting land we don’t really need.

Something else to consider is that we are already paying big bucks through Legacy funding and other sources for a de facto walk-in program—the so-called conservation easements on industry-owned forest lands. Make no mistake, there are two drivers for forest easements—one is to guarantee industry a source of fiber and the other (at least to sell the public on multi-million dollar easements) is to secure land for public deer hunting.

These easements would face a lot more scrutiny if public hunting wasn’t in the mix. It isn’t that public hunting is so important to decision-makers or to those who financially benefit from easement transactions. It’s what hunting represents in the public’s mind—an assurance that after the transaction, public access (in nearly every case already allowed prior to the easement deal) will stay the same.

Granted, this is a much better situation for the public than all of the other conservation easement and set-aside programs, where the government pays private landowners for some benefit—generally an agreement not to plow or drain the acres set aside for conservation— but does not gain any public access to the property. While wildlife may benefit from such deals, the public does not.

So, should we add yet another rental payment to landowners to derive the privilege of rousting pheasants from property we’ve already rented as wildlife habitat? Politicians, who know the business of buying votes better than any of us, might say that’s a good deal. Heck, not only do they buy the landowner’s vote, but they get the hunter’s vote to boot. In fact, when you start looking at the issue that way, you suddenly wonder if politicians are really faced with acquisition anxiety or if they’ve found yet another way to buy votes with our conservation dollars.

Regardless, the adage holds true: It’s better to own than rent. When you are a tenant, you don’t have the proprietary security that comes with ownership. While in some instances, renting may be the only way to have anything at all, it lacks permanence, leading to the question: Do we really want to rent wildlife habitat? In the short term, perhaps we can rent more habitat and hunting land that we can purchase, but wisely planned habitat acquisitions will have a far greater value to wildlife and hunters over the long haul.

Airdate: April 16, 2010
 

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