Land Lease: Sporting Rights for "Rent."

By Patterson, Rich; Patterson, Marion | American Forests, September-October 1989 | Go to article overview

Land Lease: Sporting Rights for "Rent."


Patterson, Rich, Patterson, Marion, American Forests


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. …

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