By Tim Brass
It was lunchtime and I had managed to escape from the computer, put on a pair of cross-country skis and take a few laps around the perimeter of my landlord’s property. It was an hour that any outdoor enthusiast dreams of: walking out the front door, grabbing a rod or gun or pair of skis and getting-after-it - without having to pile in the truck or compete with others for a shot at snagging a rising trout, shooting a cupping goose, skiing fresh, untouched snow.
As I circled the fenced pasture and approached the corner of the plot, an immature bald eagle rose from a craggy legacy cottonwood, swooping over the neighbors grove – the grove just on the other side of the fence, the grove that always harbors flocks of taunting Eurasian Doves. Watching from the corner of ‘my’ land I couldn’t help but feel a bit like the guy on the treadmill, in the sweaty gym. I was him, a guy stuck exercising in a cage (albeit an outdoor cage).
Don’t get me wrong, it was dreamy to be gliding around the yard beside the fence, beside the eagle. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed my little piece of paradise. It was just that fenceline that bothered me.
My mind wandered to a recent trip I had taken to Norway, where we skied freely from one farm to the other, no questions asked. It is a utopian idea for the American cross-country skier, that unfortunately, does not apply to the Norwegian hunter. Instead, to kill a moose in most of Norway you have to pay a landowner a trespass fee, then pay per-pound for any moose harvested. To ensure maximum profit from these moose, landowners fund extensive feeding programs to plump-up the animals on their side of the fence.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, a fenceline separates me from the neighbor’s land that’s been leased to hunters for upwards of $3,000 a year. I live in goose-central, but am limited to being a bird watcher or occasional pass shooter. My neighbors to North and West have leased their land to a wealthy doctor from Boulder, and neighbors to the East to a big guiding outfit that charges $250 a day. Can I really blame my neighbors? After all, if someone offered me 3k a year to do what I was already doing, would I decline it?
In 1934, Aldo Leopold predicted that “conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.” Perhaps Leopold’s prediction has come true? Isn’t the hunting lease just rewarding the landowner for providing the goose with habitat and the hunter a place to hunt?
It boils down to how we define ‘public interest.’ And to me, it’s not in the public’s interest to have a person’s networth determine whether he/she gets the opportunity to decoy a goose or kill a dove. Thankfully, for those of us who don’t have three grand to drop on a hunting lease each year, we still have a legacy of public lands - public lands set-aside by generations of sportsmen before us for all to enjoy, not just the wealthy.
While I’m sometimes bothered by fencelines and hunting leases, I’m comforted by the fact that Americans still overwhelming recognize the value of protecting the public lands that we have. And, it makes me happy that for no more than the price of a pair of boots or a set of skis, there’s a place where we’re free to wander in pursuit of game without ever hitting a fenceline.