I’m ten years old, lying in the bed of my old man’s ’89 maroon Ranger, surrounded by the familiar mugginess of an Indiana August dusk, staring up at the marshland canopy whizzing by above me. I can close my eyes now, twenty-five years later, and conjure back the stew of senses. See the histamine and particulate matter suspended in dense moist air, sun disappearing behind head high corn. The “earthy nose” of turned soil on the banks of the Kankakee River far superior to any high end California red. Deafening wind, muted slightly by getting right up against the cab and staying low.
My great aunt Delores owned 84 acres in Newton County, Indiana. The glacial recession that took place roughly 16,000 years ago on her property, carved out the landscape of sand dunes, woodland habitat, marsh and creek bottom that would become the backdrop for many of my most transformational childhood moments. We’d travel the same back road route a few dozen times between the farm and home every summer in preparation for the upcoming hunting season. Forty-five minutes and a Marge’s cheese dog with onions by pick-up, four hours, two cans of Mountain Dew and a Zebra cake by tractor and bush hog. We’d bounce and rattle that same borrowed hog to several properties closer to home to cut trails, and by the time the Indiana bow opener rolled around on October 1st, we’d have around six different properties and 1,000 acres give or take, to choose from. One property was close enough to home for me to strap my Bear Kodiak Magnum to the handlebars, shoulder my pack, and peddle. I had it made.
In 2009 we – my wife, two little girls and me – moved back to Indiana.
My aunt’s farm was now owned by some prick (I met him and he’s the genuine article), who erected an eyesore of a pole barn where my great uncle’s shop once stood, and turned the farm into a dirt bike track for his kids. One late afternoon in November I decided to take back roads home from a business trip to St. Louis. I hadn’t been past the farm in years and figured I could catch sunset and reminisce. It just pissed me off. It breaks my heart that I can’t take my girls there in the summer to dig in the old dump piles behind the barns, catch tadpoles in the creek and chase bull snakes through the dune grass. The stuff I did.
Onda’s, the swampy bottoms, unchecked brush, and rotating crop fields to which I used to ride my bike, was now a subdivision. Charlie’s place, where I arrowed my first deer, a button buck, also a subdivision. Sourman’s, a subdivision. There was a property with a small barn that we rented to keep the horses. One night out on the back forty, I built a makeshift ground blind and rattled in a naïve young 8-pointer. I was probably thirteen. He skidded to a stop within slapping distance of my hidey-hole, eyes bulging in the realization that I had duped him. He turned on his haunches and blew a frantic retreat before I could draw my bow. So cool. That property? Also a damned subdivision!
My aunt and uncle built a beautiful new home on a quiet man made lake. We took their pontoon out for a quick tour one June evening. It was dark and portended rain. Surveying the landscape I noted that we were puttering over a familiar spot. My Dad and I, one December dusk, crawled deliberately up to the edge of a small rise in the cut cornfield. He laid his old iron sighted T/C Hawken 54 cal. Percussion cap across his backpack and killed a young doe for sausage and sticks. We gutted it by the square headlight beam of his red Jimmy. A great memory. The soil we hunted that night was dug out to make the lake.
The boat ride took place maybe fifteen years after the hunt. I couldn’t hunt a single acre I could as a young man. Not a one.
What about public land? Well first, there isn’t much public land in Indiana. Roughly 2.2% of the state acreage is opened to hunting. This includes federally managed public lands and State Trust Lands, which are not public lands, and those acres could disappear via sale or lease at any time. There were a few parcels of open land close enough to me during my last stint as a resident, where on a weekday I might be able to hike, bike or float far enough from a public access point to make it through a hunt without encountering another hunter. Weekends during the firearm season I wouldn’t step foot on most publicly accessible land, especially in the northwest part of the state. Every Tom, Dick and Harry was out, and many of them had no business in the woods with a loaded weapon. No thanks. I mean I love venison but not enough to take a slug for it.
Gone are the days of helping a farmer during the summer in exchange for access during deer season. Today, those lands are developed or leased for real money. If you don’t own huntable land, or can afford a lease in the neighborhood of $5,000 a year for 80 good acres, you’re left fighting it out on crowded publicly accessible acreage or searching desperately for alternatives. Let’s say you are lucky enough to score permission on land with controlled access. Prepare to encounter trespassers, thieves and poachers. Thanks to the graciousness of an old family friend, I secured permission to hunt a foundation owned property that was at the onset of a multi-year wetland restoration project. It was the lowest point in the county and when it rained I needed a boat or chest waders to get to most stands. I made a lot of meat on that property but easily spent as much time running trespassers as I did hunting whitetails and several stands went missing.
Stories like mine are all too common across the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. and the public access landscape there continues to deteriorate.
Can we work together to increase public access in the East and Midwest? I think we can. Emulating great private land access programs like Montana’s Block Management program would be a good place to start. Tax incentives to private landowners and access for people who want to hunt or fish. Win-win. Another tactic could be new state legislation that would reward national organizations like the Nature Conservancy, or in Indiana, Niche’s Land Trust and others, to provide public access to hunters and anglers. Some conservancy properties are hunted but typically not by the general public. They often become private hunt clubs during the fall. Yet another suggestion would be for non-profits and concerned citizens to work directly with private land owners to help them understand the benefits and take advantage of private land conservation programs available via the Farm Bill.
I think there are important lessons here to be gleaned by Western U.S. hunters, too. Remember those “this is your brain on drugs” commercials with the frying egg? Well, this is your land on private ownership. Don’t think this will happen to your home state? Maybe it won’t. Maybe we will successfully stifle the most recent incarnation of public land grabbers. That might not matter though. Responsive Management, working on behalf of state and federal agencies, regularly conducts research around hunting, surveying hunters and non-hunters on a variety of topics. Their research has found that a primary reason hunters stop hunting is loss of access.
Population densities are higher in the East. Washington is in the East. If hunting culture largely dies East of the Rockies, and our societies’ disconnection to its food and our place in the food chain continues unfettered, it will impact western public land management policy in an increasingly tone-deaf manner. We’re already seeing the implications. In the last few weeks alone back in my home state of Indiana, the state legislature, misled by Governor Mike Pence, ignored state Game and Fish, and hunter and voter opposition, and passed what I consider to be two terrible laws, legalizing game farms and high caliber rifles for hunting on private land. Regardless of how you feel about either piece of legislation, the bigger issue at hand is that the state legislature, led by Gov. Pence, circumvented the process. They reached over game and fish, hunters, conservation organizations, and most importantly, voters, to pass both pieces of legislation in spite of overwhelming opposition.
We’re being ignored by uniformed politicians who are penning our future for us. We’re not loud enough cumulatively. We’re often not engaged in the process. Each issue taken on it’s own might seem like, “well that sucks but it’s not a deal breaker”, but we seem to be in the middle of a death by a thousand cuts. Fighting back will require getting into the arenas where the fights are taking place. The idea of getting involved in the political process induces a gag reflex in most of us, myself included. Though if we sit on the sidelines, offering objection and opinion only after the ink has dried, what will that get us?
I can’t give my girls what I had as a kid, but I’m hopeful that they can give something resembling what they have today, to their kids.