Editor's Note: Second of a series of stories leading up to this weekend's Governor's Pheasant Opener.
MARSHALL - Part of the beauty of hosting an event like the Governor's Pheasant Opener is it provides conservationists the perfect stage to promote public hunting land. And few parts of the state have jumped on this bandwagon more than southwest Minnesota.
This weekend's event will bring not just Gov. Mark Dayton to southwest Minnesota, but also media from news outlets that might not otherwise make their way out to Lyon County.
This image provided by the DNR shows Walk-In Access parcels throughout a 25-mile radius of Marshall. These parcels, added together, amount to 2,788 WIA acres.
"We're pushing 3,000 Walk-In Access acres in Lyon County alone and having the media in town this weekend, it's natural to talk about Walk-In Access," DNR Southern Information Officer Scott Roemhildt said. "It should be a great weekend, even though we're looking at dealing with some rain on Saturday."
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' Walk-In Access Program has grown from 9,000 acres in 2011 to about 15,000 acres in 21 counties today. Nearly 3,000 of those acres are located on 35 parcels within a 25-mile radius of Marshall. The majority of that WIA-dedicated land lies in Lincoln County, but there are seven WIA parcels in both Lyon and Murray counties that fall within that 25-mile circle, plus two in Yellow Medicine County, and one each in Redwood and Pipestone counties. All of the Lyon County WIA parcels are south of Camden State Park.
The size of WIA lands range from 11 acres to 239 acres. Nine of the dedicated parcels of land are more than 100 acres.
The WIA lands opened on Sept. 1.
In a statement provided by his office Wednesday, Dayton said WIA is "a good program because it provides hunting lands for citizens and incentives for landowners to make it available."
What makes WIA lands even more important is the impending expiration of existing federal CRP contracts.
CRP?landowners are paid to retire marginal crop land; with contracts on about 290,000 CRP acres expiring this year - and more than 620,000 total acres set to expire during the next three years - the DNR hopes some of that land will be put into WIA. To make matters worse, only 136,000 new acres have been enrolled, resulting in a net loss of CRP land.
Also, expiring CRP contracts can not be replaced this year because of Congress' inability to pass a farm bill.
With crop prices so high right now, Roemhildt said, WIA offers CRP landowners some incentive to keep their habitat-rich land protected in some way and open to hunters and the wildlife population.
"Southwest Minnesota was chosen for the pilot program because it's an important area for native prairie grasses," said Roemhildt. "With so much cropland coming out of CRP, we hope the Walk-In Access Program can provide a little bit of a financial incentive to help them keep their land open."
Landowners who enroll in WIA receive a base price of $10 per acre but can get up to $13 depending on the size of the parcel, if the land is adjoining other state or federal land and if they enroll in a multi-year contract. Each of those criteria adds $1.
"There are a lot of people that really believe in those sensitive areas and believe in keeping them out of production," Roemhildt said. "But economics become a real issue for older landowners with a fixed income or absentee owners. WIA can provide a little bit of a bump to help them make that decision to keep it in grass."
WIA parcels present the most inviting resource a hunter can ask for. WIA lands open during all hunting seasons, including spring turkey, and hunters don't have to make contact with landowners prior to hunting. Any location marked with WIA signs is considered open to hunting.
"I've been here for about five years, and when you come into a new area, you don't know anybody, you have no contacts with farmers, but with all the wildlife areas available with Walk-In Access and WMAs (Wildlife Management Areas) it just makes it an inviting, comforting place to be," said Ron Prorok of the Lyon County Chapter of Pheasants Forever. "It gives people with no contacts places to go."
In that sense, WIA areas play a key role in the region becoming a credible destination spot for hunters from across Minnesota and those from Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas - states that, like Minnesota, are also facing major CRP losses. Lyon County is consistently among the top areas for pheasant hunting to begin with, but all the public land offerings and the private land that has gone into the WIA Program, increases the appeal of the area to outside hunters.
Plus, as Prorok said, having so many acres takes pressure off lands that might otherwise become over-hunted.
"Because there's quite a bit to offer, it really takes the pressure off a particular piece," he said. "Where I came from, hunting spots were few and far between; you can tell people have been through a certain section a lot."
Prorok said several of the lands open to public hunting are at least one-quarter section or better, which gives birds more of an opportunity to move around and gives hunters more chances to find birds in various locations.
Hunters can choose to donate $1, $3 or $5 to the WIA Program when purchasing a small game or deer license.