Wick Wognum wasn't taking any chances.
When the Ely deer hunter learned that the paper-company land he'd been hunting was being put up for lease, he and three hunting partners put in a bid.
"I'd hunted that ... going back to when I was 12 years old," Wognum said. "I knew the land like the back of my hand. My concern was, what if somebody else gets it and we can't go there anymore?"
Wognum and his party acted quickly and secured themselves a piece of deer-hunting property. But other deer hunters haven't been as fortunate.
Increasingly deer hunters are finding themselves caught in a squeeze over land access. Large paper companies are selling or leasing thousands of acres across Northeastern Minnesota. Other privately owned land is being sold for rural real estate development. And some hunters are finding road access to hunting lands gated or blocked with earthen berms by state or federal agencies.
As a result, many hunters are finding access to hunting land more difficult. More "No Trespassing" and "No Hunting" signs are springing up across the northern forest.
"There are 'leased' signs, fences across roads," said Duluth hunter Eric Larson. "I've talked to foresters. I've talked to DNR (Department of Natural Resources) people. They all seem to say it's the sign of the times. Things are evolving that way."
"Many of us who have have hunted northern Minnesota have taken for granted we can go where we want on forested lands. That's starting to change with more 'No Trespassing' signs," said Brad Moore of Mahtomedi, who grew up in Duluth and hunts northeast of Duluth.
Most hunters don't blame paper companies for wanting to generate more income. And hunters usually don't blame other hunters for leasing the land. But that doesn't make it easier for those who are displaced from their traditional hunting areas.
And some hunters, such as Larson, don't like the idea of paying to hunt on land in a part of the country where public land has always been plentiful and accessible.
"The answer I keep getting is, if you don't like it, you should lease," Larson said. "But I'm philosophically opposed to it."
One of the largest players in the land-leasing movement is Potlatch Forest Holdings, a part of Potlatch Corp. based in Cloquet. Starting in 2002, the company began leasing land to hunting parties.
The lease program has been well-received, with about 150,000 acres leased, said Ed Patrias, Potlach's lease manager. Another 150,000 acres probably will be leased, he said, and 25,000 acres will be offered in 2007. The average lease parcel is 100 acres, Patrias said, and its average lease price is $650 to $750 per year.
St. Louis County offers about 600 hunting-shack leases on its land, but hunters lease just enough land for the shack, not larger tracts of land. An average lease price is about $200, said Andy Holak, forest recreation specialist for the county. Lease fees will rise as higher fees ($300 to $500) are phased in over the next five years, Holak said.
Wognum and his three partners pay $360 annually for their 61-acre Potlatch lease near Ely.
"Split up four ways, it's not that big a deal," Wognum said, "but if it's much higher, some guys wouldn't do it."
Leased land also affects other hunters who once hunted the property, said Ely DNR conservation officer Mike Lekatz.
"What used to hold 10 people or 20 now holds four," he said.
Part of Potlatch's intent, Patrias said, is that its lessees communicate with other potential users of the leased land and grant them permission to use it when appropriate.
"We stress the good-neighbor policy," Patrias said.
Problems may arise when deer hunters show up on the eve of the firearms opener, only to find that a parcel of land they've hunted in the past has recently been leased or sold.
"Guys have found that public land can be pretty tough, especially with what's going on with Potlatch leasing everything out," said Scott VanValkenburg, owner of Fisherman's Corner in Pike Lake. "Guys are locking in on those (leased lands) and putting up no-trespassing signs, blocking off pathways to land farther back in."
That requires hunters to do more preseason homework, contacting lease holders or new landowners.
"I think there's plenty of room out there," VanValkenburg said. "People just have to take time and ask permission."
But some hunters are concerned that others will simply give up hunting if they're no longer able to hunt an area with which they're familiar.
"They start to question whether they want to continue hunting because it's not as easy," Moore said. "There are so many time demands on hunters. It's one more barrier they have to research now. Barrier by barrier, it can affect the sport."
"We're trying to promote youth hunter recruitment," Duluth's Larson said. "You talk about how people aren't getting into (hunting), one of the biggest things is access to appropriate places to hunt."
Some hunters are buying their own property for hunting or seeking permission to hunt on others' private land, VanValkenburg said. Further restrictions on building permanent deer stands on federal lands and the prospects of having portable stands stolen on public lands have pushed more hunters toward private lands, he said.
"So many of the people I talk to say they're going up to the cabin, or up to the property," VanValkenburg said.
Despite some hunters' frustrations over land access, the number of deer hunters hasn't declined, according to DNR license figures. The deer population remains high, and about 440,000 firearms hunters will go afield for deer this fall, about the same as in the past several years.
Wognum brought up another problem facing hunters in his area -- primitive and secondary roads closed by gates or berms of earth.
"It's getting to be a big deal," said Lekatz, the Ely conservation officer.
Ely is surrounded by Superior National Forest land. Lekatz said both the U.S. Forest Service and the DNR close off roads that hunters and others once drove to access public hunting lands.
Forest Service officials say those roads, usually built for winter logging operations, might not be suitable for year-around vehicle use.
"When we build a road for logging, it's a different construction than for passenger vehicles or ATVs," said Nancy Larson, district ranger for the LaCroix Ranger District of Superior National Forest at Cook.
Lekatz said the problem is especially acute along the Fernberg Road east of Ely and the Echo Trail north of Ely, where there is little room for vehicles to park.
"Go up the Fernberg," he said. "There's 22 miles of road but no place to pull off. Everything is gated off. They (government agencies) punch a logging road three miles back in, then put a gate up on the front of it. Come deer season, five people pull up in front of it, and the fight starts."
Lekatz suggested the Forest Service and the DNR open the gates or remove the berms during Minnesota's 16-day firearms deer season.
Lekatz, too, wonders if hunters will grow frustrated and quit hunting.
"There used to be a lot of roads where people could go," he said. "Now (the Forest Service and the DNR) have to let them go back to Ma Nature. I don't know how that's going to bode for the future of hunting."
By Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune
(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)