Inside, the scene resembled the cantina from Star Wars in one way: It was a strategic place to gather information and try to seal a deal. Men sat around folding tables swapping stories about the birds they bagged last year, but also grousing about the difficulty of finding land where they could hunt. Iowa is 97 private land, so to have much shot at a pheasant, you pretty much need a landowner’s permission to roam his fields. That’s getting harder to come by these days, with old farms being sold and fence posts hung with new signs that warn, “No Trespassing.”

As my companions and I filled up on pancakes, a friend of theirs walked over and pulled up a chair next to us. After helping himself to a plate, he glanced around slyly, leaned forward, and passed us an enticing tip: He had a friend who had a friend who was a local landowner and might give us permission to hunt on his land. We should drive down past Colo Bogs and look out for Joe Quaker in a grey van. Soon we were on the road, rumbling over gravel roads to the appointed meeting place. When no grey van appeared, we drove on, forced to look elsewhere for hunting ground. Occasionally, we passed hunters tromping through roadside drainage ditches, among the only public turf still available to those pheasant seekers without access to someone else’s land.

This hunt for a spot to hunt is increasingly a part of the sportsmen’s pursuit today. In the terminology of those who follow the problem, “access” is the buzzword phrase. “When you ask hunters directly what their biggest concern is, out of 20-odd possible choices, land access is most often number one,” says Mark Duda of Responsive Management, a firm that conducts surveys for state wildlife departments. The scramble to find land can cause friction between hunters and landowners–in at least one instance, with tragic results. In November, a Hmong immigrant was sentenced to life in prison for killing six hunters in Wisconsin after a trespassing dispute erupted when he wandered onto their land.

The increasing difficulty of finding land to hunt on is, not surprisingly, nudging ever more hunters to hang up their shotguns. In Iowa, the number of hunters in state has dropped 26 percent in a decade, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and other states have experienced similar declines. One in three former hunters told the agency that not having a place to hunt motivated their decision to abandon their hobby. Around the country, more sportsmen each year are parking their deer stands and duck decoys in the garage.

Even so, hunting is unlikely to disappear entirely. The ranks of hunters may dwindle, but hunting itself retains a cultural resonance, calling to mind a time when pioneers depended on ingenuity and perseverance to settle the frontier and evoking a pastoral nostalgia for farm life. Americans like to think of hunting as a national tradition, even as they tool around suburban parkways in their Subaru Outbacks. Hunting and fishing are touchstones for a world that many suburban and exurban dwellers value, even if their daily lives no longer reflect it.

In American politics, few causes are more potent than those defending threatened heritage symbols. Real or perceived attacks on school prayer, the pledge of allegiance, and the etiquette of saying “Merry Christmas” have all been whipped into political maelstroms. That’s largely because conservatives recognized, and then exploited, a latent but largely unorganized anger. A comparable frustration exists among hunters over land access. But conservatives haven’t tapped into it because the source of this anxiety isn’t a liberal bogeyman, like elitism or big government. Instead, it’s the closing-off of private property and sale of public land, something many on the right defend. That means progressives could find themselves in the unexpected position of being the champions of hunters. Those states that have effectively slowed or reversed the hunting decline have done so with programs that use government to open up private lands voluntarily to public recreation. This time, it may be progressive government that holds out the best hope for preserving an American tradition.

If Americans don’t hunt in the numbers that they used to, hunting goods stores aren’t in danger of going out of business just yet. Hunting and fishing remain major national pastimes: In 2001, 13 million Americans headed out to hunt and 34 million to fish. The total number of “sportsmen”–men and women who hunt or fish–is 38 million today, nearly one in five Americans.

But while that’s a crowd, it’s a shrinking one. Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who hunt or fish has tumbled from 26 to 18 percent; the absolute number of sportsmen has fallen from 50 million to 38 million. The decline is related to the ripple effects of suburbanization, the gradual century-long movement of Americans from farms to cities and suburbs. Thirty years ago, many suburban residents still had relatives who lived in the country, relatives who would welcome them back to the farm to hunt on fall weekends. Now those relatives are largely gone–or suburban dwellers themselves. Today, more than two out of three sportsmen live in metropolitan areas, where their children grow up less familiar with firearms, removed from daily contact with blood and dirt, and often less comfortable with the pursuit of game as sport. Just as successive generations of immigrant families lose touch with the language and customs of the old country, the descendants of rural America simply don’t have the same strong cultural attachment to the land and to hunting.

Yet there isn’t an ocean separating the Old World from the New. Americans who want to reclaim their hunting heritage are at most a few hours’ drive from doing so. Likewise, there’s nothing preventing certain aspects of country culture from making their way into town. Other pastimes once thought of as rural, from country music to NASCAR, have found their fastest-growing markets in the suburbs of cities like Atlanta. But with hunting, the obstacles are twofold: Suburbanites are less likely to know anyone who owns land, and landowners–particularly absentee owners–are less inclined to open their property to strangers.

Back when more Americans lived a short walk from a relative or friend’s farm, the way someone found a place to hunt or fish was simply by asking for permission. If Uncle Fred wasn’t home, you knocked on the doors of nearby farmhouses. My dad, who grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, in the 1950s, recalls that when he and his friends stepped onto a farmer’s porch, the first question was usually, “Where you boys from?” Once the farmer had sized them up, content that local boys would know not to fire a gun near cattle and not to leave gates open, they were usually sent on their way with a wink.

These days, knocking on a stranger’s door, shotgun in hand, would likely meet with less success. For one thing, rural America has a greater proportion of absentee landowners: corporate farm owners, summer-home owners, investors who favor land over stocks. Those landowners who are home are more likely to eye unfamiliar hunters with suspicion. New arrivals from urban environments find it odd to share their lawns. Even old-timers like Uncle Fred are having second thoughts: Reports of trespassing and property damage are on the rise, especially near metro areas.

As “No Hunting” signs hang from more gates, ammo boxes sit unused in more sheds. In a poll of inactive New Jersey hunters, the complaint that there weren’t enough places to hunt topped the list of reasons for quitting the sport. Slightly further down that list was a related concern: “too many hunters in the field.” As available places to hunt diminish, hunters are squeezed onto fewer fields. In Iowa, crowds on the state’s limited public hunting grounds have swelled even as hunting license sales have declined; an estimated 20 to 30 percent of Iowa hunters now hunt on the 1 percent of land that is managed for public hunting. What the crowds reveal is a growing mismatch between desire and opportunity.

The old system of finding a spot to hunt was a favor among friends: “You knew the landowner down the road or got to know him,” Rob Sexton at the U.S. Sportsman’s Alliance remembers, “maybe shared your birds or offered to help seed a field or brought over some cakes at Christmas time.” The new system is the market.

In recent years, an industry has sprung up to match hunter checkbooks with landowner bank accounts. Now, hunters can pay for exclusive recreational access to a property through a contract known as a “hunting lease.” In 2001, leases averaged $670 per property for the hunting season, up 150 percent since 1991. To locate leasing opportunities, hunters post want ads on sites like, listing what they are looking for and what they are willing to pay. A sportsman with the handle “Texas Law Dog,” for example, wrote on behalf of five hunters seeking a hunting lease in the Lone Star panhandle; each was willing to pay $1,750 for land access.

Awarding access to the highest bidder tends to drive up prices, and consequently drives some people out. When Dave Hurteau, a columnist at Field and Stream magazine, solicited reader comments on the subject, he found he had touched a nerve. One reader wrote to say: “I had a lease that cost me $850 the first year, $1,100 the second, and $1,300 the third. Three years was enough for me.” A hunter confirmed the high price of pay-to-play hunting: “Today, a fine South Texas lease with trophy potential [big game hunting] will run $3,500 a gun and up. And I mean way up–to around $10,000. It had gotten totally out of hand.”

The rising cost of a place in the field has, according to Todd Peterson of Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, “priced some people out of the sport.” Nationally, the number of hunters with below-median incomes has declined 16 percent in 15 years; over the same period, the number of hunters with above-median incomes has declined just 3 percent.

Tony Dean, a sort of Walter Cronkite of Midwestern sportsmen, who mixes walleye recipes with political commentary on the popular “Tony Dean Outdoors” show, says he fears a day when hunting and outdoor recreation become pastimes of the elite, something only the well-to-do can afford to enjoy. “Our forefathers left a European system in which wildlife and land belonged only to landowners,” Dean told me. “We don’t want to go back to being like the Europeans.”

Indeed, in Europe the land and the creatures on it traditionally belonged to the nobility, who alone had the right to pursue game. Even today, when debates over British fox hunting arise, the descendants of dukes generally defend it while the great-grandsons of cobblers generally oppose.

But in America, something like the opposite has long been the case. In 1683, William Penn’s Charter for the Commonwealth enshrined the right of the average man to hunt and fish on all lands not enclosed for livestock. One hundred and fifty years later, in 1842, a New Jersey landowner and an oysterman found themselves in front of the Supreme Court, arguing over whether Mr. Waddell owned the oysters stuck in the mud on his property. The Court ruled that he did not, and it granted sovereignty of the waterways, the soil, and the critters in them to the people of each state.

Subsequent rulings refined the unique American system that exists today: Wildlife is held in trust by the state (managed by state wildlife agencies) for the benefit of the public, who collectively own it. This idea of public ownership became the intellectual foundation for America’s conservation movement a century ago, when commercial hunters had begun decimating buffalo herds and blasting snowy egrets with cannons in order to sell feathers for ladies’ hats. Theodore Roosevelt and a handful of other naturalists–most of them hunters–argued that wildlife belonged to the public and therefore could not be obliterated by business interests. “Public rights comes first and private interests second,” Roosevelt wrote in 1905. “The conservation of wildlife andall our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.” He outlawed commercial hunting and promoted measures–such as bag limits and game seasons–to ensure that wildlife could be enjoyed by future generations.

In a reversal of the tragedy of the commons, the American conservation movement has been far more successful, both in garnering popular support and in saving species from extinction, than efforts in countries where a different mentality exists toward ownership of wildlife. Whereas America brought back the elk, antelope, and white-tailed deer, in Britain boars, beavers, and bears no longer roam. Today, however, this heritage faces a new challenge, unfathomable in the days of Penn or Roosevelt. As Todd Bogenschutz of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources told me, “Our forefathers made wildlife public, but they screwed another thing up. They should have made access to wildlife public.”

From the window of an airplane, Kansas looks a lot like Iowa. Both are square states, checkered in agricultural fields, and more than 97 percent of the largely flat land is in private hands. A glimpse at census reports shows that they are also demographically similar. Iowans and Kansans alike have been moving from the countryside to cities like Des Moines and Wichita; the two states have seen similar single-digit population growth over the last decade, and they now rank 30th and 32nd in overall state populations. And both have beloved pheasant seasons, anticipated by hunters and promoted by small-town chambers of commerce.

There is one notable difference. While the number of hunters in Iowa has dropped 26 percent in a decade, in Kansas resident hunter numbers have remained steady and out-of-state license sales have increased. It isn’t that Kansas has more enthusiastic sportsmen’s groups or tastier birds or prettier fields than Iowa. What it does have is a state-run program that increases access to hunting grounds.

Kansas’ Walk-In Hunting Access program (WIHA)–delightfully called “wee-haw”–works with private landowners to arrange for public hunting use of their land. It started a decade ago after the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks polled inactive hunters and found that access was the greatest obstacle to hunting. In 1995, a pilot version of WIHA debuted in seven counties around Wichita, encompassing 10,000 acres of land. Since then, the program has grown to include over one million acres across the state.

In early November, on opening morning of this fall’s pheasant season, Mike Thompson and his son Brandon drove 40 minutes west from their home in Wichita, parked their truck beside a field of tall grass, and hopped out to don orange vests. Signs bordering the field read: “Walk-In Hunting Area, foot traffic only.” Anyone with a $19 resident hunting license can hunt on WIHA land, and it’s not hard to find convenient sites. Mike had noticed the signs for this particular spot while driving; he might also have found it by consulting an online atlas of available sites or flipping through a listing at Cabela’s, the sportsmen’s megastore.

The Thompsons were walking back to their truck, a bird in hand and a black lab trotting ahead of them, when a state wildlife department employee pulled up to distribute survey cards. Mike said he had relatives in Illinois with hunting land, but that was “a real long drive”–having a destination under an hour away was much better. “I’d pay for this program,” Mike offered. The biologist tipped his hat, a burnt orange cap that read “Kansas Hunting Access,” and said, “There’s an address on that card if you want to send a donation. We’ll send you a hat.”

That same morning, LaVeda Cross, longtime resident of the small town of Lewis, Kansas, watched hunters pour into restaurants where cooks had fired up griddles and coffee pots before dawn. Cross owns about 3,000 acres that members of her family homesteaded generations ago outside of town. Four years ago, she contacted the state wildlife agency about enrolling her land in WIHA; a wildlife biologist came out to inspect habitat conditions before offering her a contract and negotiating the compensation. Payments vary based on habitat and hunting seasons, but the average rate is $1.25 per acre in Kansas. (That’s in addition to any money a landowner makes farming or grazing the land, or enrolling it in a federal conservation reserve program.) Cross now lives in town; her son works the land. She tells me it’s harder to make a living on the farm than it used to be, and the spike in fuel prices hit hard this harvest season. So, while the payment from the wildlife department is not a lot, “It’s a simple way to make a little bit of money and help keep up income and repairs.”

And there’s another reason Cross likes WIHA: She’s grateful for Charlie Swank, a wildlife biologist who wears his ten-gallon hat on official business and calls Cross regularly to keep her informed of what’s happening on the land. Before she enrolled her land in WIHA, Cross had problems with hunters trespassing and taking pot shots at the windmills on the farm (“The ones who don’t ask permission tend to be the reckless ones”). Now, the state has authority to watch over the land and assumes limited liability, which otherwise would rest with Cross and other landowners. More people use her land now, but according to Cross, there have been far fewer problems with property damage: “I really look forward to the time when the hunters come back,” she tells me.

According to the department’s annual surveys, just one in five landowners live on the enrolled property, though many, including Cross, reside nearby. With fewer farmers each overseeing larger plots of land, monitoring property has become a big concern. Eighty-one percent of landowners said that state patrol of their lands was a “very important” or “moderately important” component of the Kansas program. Each year, Cross says, she turns down an offer for a more lucrative private lease from a group of Colorado hunters, in part because of the “peace of mind” the state program provides.

Kansas is one of seven states that has operated a sizable access program (involving 500,000 or more acres) for a decade or longer. In each of these seven states, the number of hunters in state has either gone up, held steady, or dipped at a rate far slower than would otherwise be expected, given urbanization and other demographic changes. (see “Walk This Way.”) During a decade in which the number of hunters nationally declined by 7 percent, those states with large established access programs collectively saw the number of hunters in state (resident and nonresident) rise by nearly 5 percent.

Access programs are wildly popular with hunters, benefit landowners and farmers, and promise to slow hunting’s decline, at least for the moment. The only question seems to be: Why aren’t more states embracing them?

Given the escalating payments that private leasers are willing to make in order to secure land access, some skeptics question whether states can afford to be competitive in the deals they offer to landowners. As LaVeda Cross and other owners, especially the growing cadre of absentee landowners, can attest, part of the attraction of an access program is the peace of mind that comes with authorizing someone else to watch over your land. But some states have also worked with landowners to develop creative methods of compensation that meet their specific needs. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the state offers landowners habitat consultations with state biologists and free seedlings in lieu of payments. Oregon has hired retired state troopers to beef up patrol of lands enrolled in its access program. The goal is to identify ways to supplement cash payments to landowners with services that draw upon the state’s expertise–and provide a market advantage over private leasers.

In addition, cash-strapped state capitals, under political pressure from conservative activists to avoid raising taxes, are loathe to implement new programs that require additional funding. Even though hunting season can be a significant economic generator for rural economies–filling main-street restaurants and roadside motels–state legislatures have not clamored to start access program to attract more hunters. In almost every case (Oregon is the exception), the initiative to start such programs has come instead from state wildlife departments. “It’s kinda dangerous,” says Mike Mitchener, Kansas’ wildlife section chief, “a bunch of biologists getting into policy and marketing.”

What states have found, however, is that access programs can have benefits that exceed their costs. Kansas has paid for its $1.5 million program largely by redistributing its existing wildlife operating budget, which is only just over $3 million annually. Yet wildlife-related recreation is estimated to bring a hefty sum of $785 million to the state each year. In Oregon, a $2 surcharge on hunting licenses has funded its access program. But despite polls that show hunters in other states are willing to pay a modest charge to fund access programs, wildlife agencies have found it difficult to convince legislatures to embrace anything that looks like a tax hike.

If politicians realized the potential support for access programs beyond the nation’s relatively small cadre of hunters, they might be more enthusiastic about the political benefits of expanding Americans’ access to enjoy wildlife on private lands.

Access programs are an elegant way to stem hunting’s slow demise. Yet the potential of the idea extends far beyond hunting, for sportsmen aren’t the only ones having a tough time finding a spot to enjoy nature. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “non-consumptive wildlife recreation,” a category that includes such pursuits as nature hiking and bird watching, has also declined–13 percent in a decade. This drop has occurred even as visits to national parks have increased substantially, suggesting that Americans’ demand for experiencing nature hasn’t diminished, it’s just outstripped the supply of accessible land.

Access programs could provide an answer. In Wyoming and other states, programs are being adapted to help anglers (see “The Reel Deal.”). In Pennsylvania, lands managed under the state’s hunting access program already attract horseback riders and hikers. And because many access programs target acreage near metropolitan areas, giving landowners a small incentive not to sell out too quickly to developers (and developers a modest reason to hold off building on land they own), these programs ought to be popular with everyone from Boy Scouts to mountain-bike dealers to suburban anti-sprawl advocates.

It takes time for any new idea to percolate nationally, and the origins of access programs (in conversations in the field, and between regional fish and wildlife departments) are literally as grassroots as they come. But another reason these programs haven’t yet caught fire in Washington may have more to do with the fact that conservatives currently dominate every foothold of federal government. Polling shows that hunters and anglers vote predominantly, though not overwhelmingly, Republican. On some issues, such as gun rights, the GOP has courted these groups intently. But on hunting and fishing land access, conservatives have routinely supported industrial interests over those of sportsmen.

The Bush administration has pushed sales of oil and gas drilling rights on public land in the West, much of it prime habitat and hunting and fishing range, sparking increasingly loud protests from sportsmen’s groups. Outrage at plans to allow exploratory drilling near Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front (oft-dubbed “America’s Serengeti,” a trophy-hunter’s paradise) convinced the White House to back off before the last election. The latest outcry occurred over language House Resources Committee chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) inserted into a GOP-backed budget bill. The insertion, since withdrawn, would have allowed the sell-off of vast holdings of public lands to mining companies and developers.

Liberals hardly have a better record at championing sportsmen’s causes. Local chapters of the Sierra Club, for instance, have campaigned against everything from dove hunting in Minnesota to the culling of black bears in New Jersey–even though state wildlife biologists insist the hunts pose no ecological risks. Some environmental leaders, though, are beginning to find philosophic and political common ground with sportsmen’s groups, pursuing partnerships on a variety of fronts, including private land access. So are some Democrats in Congress.

For the last two years, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) have introduced an “Open Fields” bill. The measure would provide $20 million a year for five years in federal money for states to establish or expand access programs for “hunting, fishing, bird-watching, and related outdoor activities.” That any elected official would fail to support such an inexpensive, uncontroversial, and potentially popular bill might be hard to imagine. Yet in both GOP-dominated houses of Congress the measure has garnered nearly twice as many Democratic co-sponsors as Republican, and consequently not gone very far.

As long as the conservative ethos reigns in Washington and in state capitals, then America’s hunting, fishing, and outdoors culture will almost certainly continue to decline. The best hope for protecting this heritage probably rests with elected officials of a progressive bent, Republicans as well as Democrats–officials who are ideologically comfortable using government to assert a right bequeathed by America’s political forefathers: that wildlife belongs not to private interests but to the public.