The Value of Access

[Note: The following was first published in the January 2013 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2013 Don H. Meredith

private land

Should you pay for access to private land?

One of the first economic models you learn, probably in grade school, is that of “supply and demand” where the price of a good or service is determined by the amount of the good or service available and the demand for that good or service. It drives a lot of what we do in the market place in terms of what price to pay and whether or not we buy a particular product. If it’s cheap and we have the money, we might buy just because we can. If it’s expensive, however, we may decide it’s not worth it and move on to some other product that is cheaper or more needed.

A provider of a good or service, seeing a larger demand for his or her product than he can deliver, might try to increase production. However, he might find that he is already at his capacity because his resource supply is limited, and increase the price within the limitations dictated by his competition. Such is the situation we face with many of our natural resources. While there are fixed amounts of oil, gas, minerals, timber, food and wildlife in Alberta (and the world), there are ever increasing numbers of people demanding to use them. Unfortunately for our fish and wildlife, those resources are often sacrificed when they come into conflict with other resource extraction.

This is the conundrum the various regional advisory councils (RACs) of the Land Use Framework (LUF) face when writing their regional land use plans. Despite LUF’s initial goal of having all seven regional plans in place by 2012, only two have been initiated: the lower Athabasca and South Saskatchewan regions. Of these, only the lower Athabasca RAC has a plan approved by government. This region is dominated by the extraction of oil from the tar sands on crown land. Although Fort McMurray has an exploding human population, the largest human effect on the region is the world’s demand for cheap petroleum energy. Balancing that demand against the needs of both local and provincial residents was fraught with difficult decisions, and I leave it to the reader to determine if the plan will work. My major concern with this and other plans is the “elephant in the room” that few want to discuss: the ever increasing human demand for resources. When do we say we are at the limit of what resources we can supply without irreparably hurting our quality of life?

A case in point is the proposed “paid access for hunting” in the pending South Saskatchewan Regional Plan that Rob Miskosky discussed in the December Alberta Outdoorsmen. Of all the regions in Alberta, the South Saskatchewan drainage is most directly impacted by human population. It has the highest population, the least water and the most privately held land of the seven regions. As Dr. Brad Stelfox and the ALCES group have repeatedly illustrated with their extensive research in the region, much of that land is oversubscribed by human development and the environment is suffering as a result.

Under such conditions, competing interests for many of the resources available are finding the costs for those resources escalating. In that environment, it is not surprising that landowners would like to get paid for allowing access to fish and wildlife. The demand is getting higher and the supply lower, and why not pay the landowner for maintaining fish and wildlife habitat? However, as I have previously pointed out, paying for access to fish and wildlife violates at least three of the basic tenets of the North American Wildlife Conservation Model: 1) no one should own wildlife 2) no one should profit from the sale of wildlife; and 3) every citizen should have an equal right to hunt and have access to hunting areas.

Owning Wildlife
It can be argued that charging for access to land to hunt or fish is not really owning wildlife. The wildlife is still owned by the public through the Crown and is free to move from one piece of land to another; all the landowner is doing is charging a fee to get to the wildlife on his land. It’s a good argument except that if taken to its logical conclusion under the supply and demand model, only those affluent enough to afford the fee will be able to access wildlife on private land. And as more public land is sold or its use restricted, soon we have the problem our European ancestors faced in their homelands: only the wealthy are able to hunt or fish.

Sale of Wildlife
Similarly, it can be argued that charging for access is not really selling wildlife. How can you sell something you don’t own? However, the effect is the same: private individuals are profiting from the wildlife on their lands, depriving those who cannot afford the market price access to the resource.

As Miskosky pointed out, this issue has been with us for a long time. Former Sustainable Resource Minister, Ted Morton, had good reason to bring forward the ill fated Resource Access Management Plan and the Hunting for Habitat programs back in 2008. He lived and hunted in the South Saskatchewan River region and knew the difficulties hunters were having accessing private lands. What he didn’t realize was how strongly Albertans valued their right of free access to wildlife. However, the problem still remains: how do we compensate landowners for maintaining fish and wildlife habitat? If we look at what is occurring in some other jurisdictions in North America, the prospects are not promising.

For example, Utah has taken a few more steps down the road to privatization of wildlife than Alberta. Like many jurisdictions, the government allocates most hunting licences through draws. As reported in the December 1st New York Times, hunters in Utah must wait from 10 to 20 years to get many licences. That is unless they have the funds to purchase hunting licences directly from private landowners.

No Hunting

If landowners are not compensated in some way, we may see more signs like this one.

To placate ranchers for the damage elk, deer and antelope do to forage crops for cattle, the government issues allotments of vouchers for hunting licences to ranchers. The ranchers, in turn, sell the vouchers to hunters for thousands of dollars. This program, which has existed for over 10 years, takes hunting opportunity away from many residents who cannot afford the private licences, and forces them to jam the draw system for access to hunts on public land—hence the 10 to 20 year waiting periods.

Right of Access
Fundamentally, all this boils down to the last tenet in the North American model: the right of all citizens to have equal access to wildlife. In other words, our wildlife should not be commodified and subjected to economic models like supply and demand. If landowners must be compensated to maintain wildlife habitat, it should be done under programs financed by taxpayers or all users through licence fees. Are you willing to pay more for a licence if the money is directed toward ensuring adequate hunting opportunity on private land while securing quality wildlife habitat on that land? Or are you willing to let supply and demand take its course and dictate what you will pay to hunt or fish?

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out  The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I wrote a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine, and have published articles for several other magazines.
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