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Land lease: sporting rights for "rent."

Back in the early 1950s, John Mullin's family faced a problem that many modern forest and farm owners can sympathize with. Despite plenty of hard work on their land, which overlooks the Mississippi River near Goose Lake, Iowa, traditional agriculture was failing to yield enough money to meet the expenses of running the farm and feeding a growing family. Supplemental cash was needed to augment the corn income, and Mullin decided to sell the right to hunt the pheasants that were helping themselves to his crops.

So successful was his experiment that today the old Mullin farm is called the Arrowhead Hunting Club, and the bulk of the farm's income comes from the dozens of sportsmen who pay to hunt pheasants, chukar partridge, quail, and mallards on the land.

The concept of leasing recreational access to hunters, fishermen, and campers is now an accepted practice in much of the United States. As public recreation areas become increasingly crowded and as landowners seek new ways of generating income, leasing is bound to become more common. Selling recreational access for fishing and camping is less widespread than the sale of hunting rights, a system that John Mullin calls free-enterprise hunting, but leasing for all three kinds of recreational activities is likely to increase in a nation that is rapidly urbanizing.

According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, there are 18 million hunters in the United States. Although numbers have been stable for the past few years, land available to hunt on has declined in both acreage and quality. Not many years ago, all a sportsman had to do was knock on a farmhouse door and pleasantly ask permission to hunt. In most cases the request was granted with no cash being exchanged. Unfortunately, thousands of those farms have been gobbled up by new residential areas, roads, golf courses, factories, and other encroachments.

Even areas that are still rural have suffered a steady erosion of quality hunting opportunities. Game populations dwindle as farmers bulldoze hedgerows by the mile and entire woodlots. Although those farmers may still permit free access, much of their land has scarcely enough habitat to support a chickadee, let alone a pheasant or quail.

What's more, scare stories of liability claims filed by recreational users have caused a number of farmers to refuse access to strangers.

The result is intolerable crowding on public hunting grounds in many areas, frustrating both hunters and wildlife managers-but providing opportunities for those landowners whose land still contains good populations of wildlife. Generally, forest or farm owners can augment their incomes by collecting trespass fees; leasing hunting, fishing, or camping rights; or establishing hunting resorts on their property.

The simplest form of fee hunting is the charging of a trespass fee. Often this is done on a one-day basis. The hunter merely pays a set or negotiated fee for the right to seek game. The system is not widespread in the United States.

Much more common is the leasing of hunting rights to an individual or group of hunters. Leasing is well established and is particularly common in the South.

South Carolina insurance agent Bob Hall is an expert on hunting leases. "Leasing seems to work best for large landowners," says Hall. "Most of my clients own over 10,000 acres, and many of them are timber companies. " Often a lease is negotiated with a hunting club of 20 to 50 sportsmen, although sometimes a landowner leases hunting rights to one person who, in turn, guides hunters on the land for a fee. Leases generate income for landowners while providing hunters with memorable outdoor experiences and the chance to pursue deer, turkey, and quail without facing crowds.

Leasing is a way of life in Texas, a state with only a tiny amount of public hunting land. According to San Antonio-based hunting expert Hal Swiggart, there would be little hunting in the state without the lease system. Many Texas ranchers lease hunting rights to individuals, with rates ranging from $5,000 to $8,000 for the right to hunt deer on some of the ranches with the best hunting. Swiggart explains that the sale of leases pays the taxes for many large ranchers. In fact, hunting income helped many of them scrape through the recent agricultural recession.

Because of the high value of leases in Texas, landowners carefully manage their land to produce large and abundant deer, and they deliberately keep hunter numbers low. "I know of one rancher who will sell hunting rights to no more than 12 people, and he owns 25,000 acres," says Swiggart.

Few hunters can afford to pay Texas lease rates. Fortunately, lease fees in other states tend to be much lower. According to John Long, a leasing expert in New York, most landowners in eastern states set their rates to recover the cost of their property taxes. Leases near urban areas are priced higher than those in more remote areas. "Generally, a landowner will charge a lease fee and require the hunters-usually a club-to purchase liability insurance, post the land, and patrol it during hunting seasons," says Long. Leasing relies on wild, naturally produced game stocks. Hunters purchasing leasing rights must abide by state laws, meaning they must have a hunting license, hunt within mandated season dates, and adhere to bag and possession limits. Technically, they, are buying the right of access to land, not the deer, quail, ducks, or other game they may harvest. Leasing is common on forest land, with deer being the normal game animal. In Louisiana leasing land for duck hunting is common, and across the South quail leases are popular.

In contrast to leasing is the concept of the hunting resort, or shooting preserve as it is more traditionally called. Resorts or preserves are usually established on agricultural land and are feasible on tracts as small as 200 acres. The quarry is some combination of pen-reared and released pheasants, quail, chukar partridge, and mallards. Many resorts also offer Sporting Clays, a form of shotgun target shooting that simulates hunting.

Establishing a hunting resort gives the owner of a relatively small tract of land an opportunity to generate sometimes substantial income from hunters in return for intensive management of both wildlife and people. "It costs a hunter about $75 for a half day of sport at the average Midwest hunting resort," says Larry Statler, who operates a preserve called Safari Iowa in the south central part of the state. But owners' operating expenses and labor costs can run high.

Hunting preserves in America go back at least to the days of George Washington, when wealthy landowners imported and released game to improve the opportunities for nimrods. Modern preserve hunting began in 1911 with the passage of the Bayne Bill, which legalized the sale of certain types of wildlife.

Because game hunted at resorts is pen-reared and released, it is subject to different regulation than the same species living in the wild. Laws vary from state to state, but in general, hunting seasons on preserves run for six or seven months. In some states hunting licenses are not required on preserves.

Few people understand the potentials or pitfalls of operating a hunting resort as well as does John Mullin. In addition to managing his own hunting resort, he edits and publishes Wildlife Harvest Magazine, official publication of the North American Gamebird Association (NAGA). This organization provides technical support to hunting-resort owners and publishes a directory to help hunters locate resorts.

According to Mullin, one problem encountered by preserves and resorts is that many hunters turn up their noses at the thought of chasing penreared birds. "Americans still have a Daniel Boone attitude toward wildlife," he says. "Most hunters believe that game should be free and available to anyone who buys a shotgun and license. Ironically, many of these same people think nothing of fishing for hatchery-reared trout. "

There is some traditional justification for avoiding hunting pen-reared birds. Years ago it was common practice to release birds in sparse cover right in front of hunters. Times have changed.

The North American Gamebird Association provides these guidelines to help ensure quality hunting:

* The area should look like good hunting country, with a blend of natural and cultivated cover.

* Pheasants, quail, and chukars should be in full plumage, more than 16 weeks old, and of the same color and conformation as birds in the wild.

* Well-trained dogs should be available to help guests reduce crippling losses of game.

In the old days, hunters usually paid a predetermined fee per bird bagged. But the modern concept is to pay for birds released, whether they are bagged or not. This tends to emphasize the experience of hunting, rather than the shooting aspect.

Mullin encourages the use of the words hunting resort or club over shooting preserve. "Shooting is only a small part of the experience," he says, "and to me a preserve is a place the Nature Conservancy takes care of, not a place to hunt. "

The resort aspect is of major importance, as many people visit primarily to relax and enjoy themselves. Major clients are often corporations, and many a business deal has been swung in the lodge of a hunting resort over an excellent meal served by the owner's family.

The resort concept can be an important income source for a farm if the family members like serving people as well as producing wildlife. "I know a former Illinois dairy farmer who thought he could make a killing by converting his farm into a hunting resort," notes Mullin. "He remodeled his barn into a beautiful lodge and had good cover and plentiful wildlife. But he hated dealing with the public, and his business soon faded."

It might seem that hunting resorts would flourish best in densely populated regions where opportunities for free hunting are scarce. Although they are common in urbanized states, hunting resorts are scattered across at least 44 states and are even found in such natural hunting paradises as Wyoming and Montana. Resorts located in rural areas have the advantage of lower land values and taxes. Sometimes individual and corporate clients are willing to fly to distant spots in exchange for pleasant hunting experiences.

Private-enterprise hunting offers opportunities to make money for landowners, but it also provides services to hunters. The convenience and quality experience offered by leases and resorts often make hunting possible for those who don't know a friendly farmer or woodland owner.

There is no doubt that wildlife populations are also a beneficiary of fee hunting. Farmers must have an economic incentive to leave wildlife habitat intact," says Mullin. "If there were money in it, farmers would produce a surplus of game that would rival today's bumper crops of corn, soybeans, pork, and other foods."

Preserves are one way that hunters can pay landowners to improve and protect wildlife habitat, but the landowner may find himself encountering some pitfalls. Over the years, Mullin has planted about 73,000 pines in narrow rows close together to protect pheasants from Iowa's frequent ice and snow storms. Several years after planting the first pines, he faced a management conflict. As the groves grew, shading began to kill off the lower branches, leaving little ground cover for the birds to hide under. Pheasants would still be attracted to the groves during storms, but they were easy prey for owls and other predators.

Years ago an accepted practice to solve the problem was to fell a large number of pines in late fall to create ground cover. The pheasants were thereby saved, but the practice ruined the potential of the trees.

Mullin arid Dr. George Burger, a wildlife manager at the Max McGraw Foundation in Illinois, worked out a solution. Before the pines are large and dense enough to shade their lower branches, a severe pruning is done. The lower two whorls are left on the tree, but the next five or six are completely removed, allowing a window of light to penetrate. The lower branches go on living and sheltering pheasants for years, while the trees continue to grow straight and tall.

This kind of creativity is one of the things it takes to succeed at operating a hunting preserve. Also cited as being helpful are being near a metropolitan area and having an airport, motels, and restaurants nearby.

Charging for land access is not limited to hunting. Dick and Edie Alman have taken the leasing concept one step further on their 350-acre tree farm in eastern Iowa. They have diversified their income through the sale of forage, sawtimber, 1,600 Christmas trees a year, and recreation.

Back in 1975 they established a camp area. They now lease recreational rights to 26 families who receive a campsite and are allowed unlimited use of the entire property for fishing, hunting, berry picking, and firewood gathering. "Some of my campers harvest enough firewood to heat their homes all winter," says Dick Alman.

The Almans charge $300 per family, which generates about $7,000 per year. They report few problems and appreciate the income that supplements their more traditional cash sources.

As America continues to urbanize and more and more people seek quality outdoor recreation, opportunities for landowners to make money by selling access are bound to increase. As John Mullin reflects, "My farmer neighbors thought we were nuts when we abandoned corn back in 1952, but we had a harvest that year, and we've had one ever since." The Mullins' harvest was pheasants and quail.


In a lawsuit-crazed world, landowners need to be aware of situations that could make them vulnerable to damage claims. Some farm and forest owners sell hunting rights without specific coverage. This is risky. Most standard farm and forest insurance policies do not cover damage claimed by paying hunters. Anyone in doubt should check with their agent. At least two insurance companies write special policies for landowners who lease lands or operate hunting resorts. William Hall of the Davis-Garvin Agency (Box 21627, Columbia, SC 29221; 800 845-3161) specializes in insurance for lease hunting. Most policies are set up to serve large landowners. Premium costs are about 15 cents per acre per year for tracts of over 50, 000 acres. The per-acre cost for tracts in the 10,000-acre range is about 23 cents. Hall also writes policies for hunting clubs. On some lease arrangements, landowners insist that the hunting club leasing the property purchase insurance. These premiums typically cost $25 per hunter per year.

John Long specializes in selling insurance to owners of hunting resorts. His company, Woodward, Long & Reiger, Inc. (2259 Niagara Rd., Niagara Falls, NY 14304; 716 264-8441), sells liability insurance to landowners having both small and large tracts. Premiums are $5.50 per hundred dollars of gross hunting receipts, There is a $650 minimum premium.

Long requires that anyone purchasing insurance from him be a member of the North American Gamebird Association (NAGA). "Their publications give landowners excellent information," he says. For information on the NAGA, contact Walter S. Walker, Secretary, P.O. Box 2105, Cayce-West, Columbia, SC 29171; 803 796-8163.
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Author:Patterson, Marion
Publication:American Forests
Date:Sep 1, 1989
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