Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Woman hunter holding turkey next to public hunting ground sign © Ryan Brathal

Becky Davis harvested this 22-pound turkey on a Voluntary Public Access property in St. Croix County.
© Ryan Brathal

August 2012

Finding hunting land is easier

Walk-in access in Wisconsin is a reality.

Melissa Keenan

Have you ever dreamed of having thousands of acres of land open to walk-in access like they do in the Western United States? A similar program aimed at providing additional public access in Wisconsin is coming up on its one-year anniversary.

The national Voluntary Public Access-Habitat Incentives Program was approved as part of the 2008 Federal Farm Bill. The VPA-HIP compensates landowners who open their property to the public for wildlife-dependent recreation opportunities.

In Wisconsin, the Voluntary Public Access (VPA) program was implemented a year ago and provides public access in 49 counties for hunting, fishing, trapping and wildlife observation.

The program is funded through a grant administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Wisconsin received $1.9 million to jump start this program and since becoming available last fall, the program has enrolled an impressive 32,000 acres.

Private lands leased for public hunting and fishing

Historically, a state-funded private lands leasing program for hunting and fishing called Public Hunting Grounds (PHG) was available throughout Wisconsin. Over the years, rates became less competitive and eventually the program died out in many counties. However, a few strongholds remained including areas near Footville, Evansville Wildlife Area in Rock County, and Adell Wildlife Area in Sheboygan County. As of 2010, there were 14,000 acres enrolled in the PHG program but the trend was moving downward at a rate of 5 to 10 percent annually.

The Department of Natural Resources was able to retain almost all of the old PHG program participants by offering increased rates through VPA and in August of 2011 the department started approaching new, willing landowners about leasing their land to the department.

Program staff relied heavily on word-of-mouth, direct mailings and local press releases to inform landowners about the opportunity to lease with the department. The Department of Natural Resources also hired four field staff to help promote the program and provide additional wildlife habitat improvement recommendations. Partner groups inside and outside the Department of Natural Resources also helped promote VPA.

The importance of access

The decline in hunter numbers is expected to continue and lack of access is one of the many obstacles potential hunters face.

"Today people are overloaded with options for their leisure time and the amount of time spent in structured or planned activities takes up a greater proportion of the day," says Keith Warnke, DNR hunting and shooting sports coordinator. "Add to that the increasing urbanization of our population (more people living in cities) and the fragmentation of the landscape into smaller and smaller parcels and it's easy to see that having a place to go hunting can become an obstacle. Having a place to hunt that is close to home is even more important."

The VPA program is focused around population centers such as the Twin Cities, Madison-Milwaukee metro areas and the Fox River Valley. Opportunities in the southern part of the state may also attract out-of-state visitors from the Rockford and Chicago areas.

"The VPA program has shown itself to be valuable in providing that close-to-home access for Wisconsin hunters," Warnke says. "Expanding the program to enroll more land will further the partnership between private landowners, the Department of Natural Resources and hunters. Hopefully that can result in solid hunter recruitment and retention in the future."

Economic impact

VPA is essential to the more than $3.7 billion spent annually on wildlife-dependent recreation in Wisconsin. According to an assessment on the economic benefit of VPA in Wisconsin, for every dollar spent investing in the VPA program through lease agreements and administrative costs, users spent an additional $4.25. Visitors to VPA lands are spending money at the local café, motel in town, or purchasing supplies at the convenience store and bait shop.

Enrolling is easy

Wisconsin map showing VPA properties © DNR File
Voluntary Public Access Program property locations.
© DNR File

Any landowner within an eligible county (see map) may ask ¯to be enrolled. Priority is given to parcels greater than 40 acres with at least 25 percent permanent habitat such as grassland, wetland or forest, and to parcels located near or adjacent to land already open to public access such as state wildlife and fishery areas and waterfowl production areas.

Land enrolled in other conservation programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Managed Forest Law (MFL) or Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) may also be eligible.

Lease payments are determined by the land type enrolled: $3/acre for agriculture land, $10/acre for grassland and wetland, and $15/acre for forestland. Landowners will receive a lump sum, upfront payment within 60 days of signing their lease agreement.

Under sec. 895.52 of the Wisconsin Statutes, landowners are generally immune from liability for injuries received by individuals recreating on their lands. Under sec. 29.617, the department agrees to pay for damages arising from the operation of public hunting or fishing grounds. Claims may include damage to crops or property such as gates or fences.

Elsbeth Fuchs of Waterloo loves seeing the wildlife on her land that is enrolled in VPA. "We have a 91-acre marsh with a lot of open water that attracts Sandhill cranes, turkeys and other wildlife. I want everyone who loves hunting to have access and enjoy my farm like my husband and I have."

Finding new places to recreate

VPA Enrollment

Funding for the VPA program is only available until September 2012 and future funding is uncertain. If you are interested in enrolling your land into VPA, contact the program coordinator at (608) 266-5560 by Aug. 31 to ensure enrollment. Outdoor enthusiasts looking for properties to access should visit the VPA Web page at Wisconsin DNR and search "VPA."

Land enrolled in VPA is open for all hunting, fishing and trapping seasons. Additionally, lands are open year-round for wildlife observation. All property boundaries are posted with white signs with green writing stating "Private Lands Leased for Public Access." Visitors should reference individual property maps located at Wisconsin DNR, search keyword "VPA."

Visitors to VPA properties are not required to contact the landowner prior to accessing the land. Only foot traffic is permitted – some properties have designated parking while others rely on visitors parking on the road shoulders. Users are expected to respect landowner rights by following the VPA Code of Conduct.

VPA lands are treated like state wildlife areas and only portable tree stands or blinds are permitted.

Vic Meyers visited a VPA property in Manitowoc County and said he appreciated the access and the privacy.

"It felt like the land was not ‘over used,'" Meyers said. "I spent four hours outdoors with my son with a firearm and it felt great to be alive. He enjoyed it. I enjoyed it. It was a day that we will never forget. It was his first time hunting as we just purchased a small game license for my son the day before and we were also in a mentored hunter program."

Melissa Keenan is the DNR's Voluntary Public Access coordinator.

VPA Code of Conduct
  • Follow all hunting, fishing and trapping regulations.
  • Only access areas posted with VPA signs. Know the field boundaries and do not trespass on the surrounding private land.
  • Access is limited to foot traffic only. No motorized vehicles allowed.
  • Avoid damage to property and standing crops.
  • Park wisely on the shoulder of a public road or in a designated parking area. Do not block access to farm fields or pastures.
  • Leave gates as you found them.
  • Do not hunt near farmsteads or buildings – maintain a distance of 300 feet.
  • Do not contact landowners asking for permission to access VPA properties.
  • Support ethical responsible hunting – Report violations CALL: 1-800-TIP-WDNR (1-800-847-9367).
  • Be aware of invasive species and prevent the spread – clean all boots, equipment, dogs, etc., before entering and leaving a VPA property.
  • Constructing or erecting blinds, stands or other structures is not allowed. Portable structures are acceptable – avoid damaging trees and take structures with you when you leave.
  • Do not litter. Pack out spent shotgun shells or rifle casings.
  • Be ethical, courteous and safe. Abuse it – lose it.