Times Spent Outdoors: Priceless!

Important Information For Sportsmen, Other Wildlife Enthusiasts — Part 2

The Arizona Game and Fish Department recently distributed information addressing an “open letter” from a constituent group describing challenges facing sportsmen. The Department provided some additional information regarding the “loss of wildlife” issue described in the open letter.

Another issue listed in the open letter is that of “access to public lands.”

We agree that access for public recreation has been, and will continue to be, an issue as our state continues to grow. Challenges include private landowners closing off access to or through their property, land management restrictions by public agencies, and others.

We feel it is important for sportsmen, wildlife enthusiasts and other outdoor recreationists to know the efforts the Arizona Game and Fish Department has made on an ongoing basis to maintain public access.

Landowner Relations

Access restrictions in Arizona have increased over the last decade. Some private landowners have closed off access to their lands — or to public lands landlocked by private property — where access was once permitted. Reasons for private landowners denying access vary, but include vandalism, trespassing, littering, off-road activities, disruption of landowner operations, and liability issues.

Game and Fish respects the rights of private landowners and continues to work with them, in partnership with sportsmen’s/conservation groups and other members of the public, to maintain access through the various aspects of the Department’s Landowner Relations Program. These efforts have helped maintain access to several million acres of land in Arizona.

The various aspects of the Landowner Relations Program include the following:

Access Program

The Department’s Access Program works cooperatively with private landowners across the state to create and maintain public access on or through private land. It is a cost-share program funded through Heritage funds, used for various projects with private landowners that can help the property and benefit wildlife habitat in exchange for short-term or perpetual access agreements.

These projects vary in scale depending on the importance of the access point as well as the length of the access agreement. Access funds can also be used to purchase perpetual public access easements on privately owned roads that provide public access to federal lands.

The projects that can be accomplished vary greatly, depending on the landowner's and wildlife habitat needs. Some examples of cost-sharing projects that benefit landowners, the Department and the public include road maintenance to provide access, brush treatments to restore grasslands, dirt tank clean outs, installing water distribution systems and drinkers, fencing, and grassland reseeding.

Through this program, nearly 3.2 million acres of private and land-locked state trust and federal lands are opened to public access.

Adopt-A-Ranch Program

The Department’s Adopt-A-Ranch program is another way Game and Fish has helped maintain public access to or through land. Nearly 30 Adopt-A-Ranch projects are completed every year.

Under the program, groups of interested members of the public (e.g., sportsmen’s/conservation groups, Boy Scouts, OHV clubs) "adopt" a ranch with the idea of working directly with the landowners and the Department to mitigate problems associated with public recreational access.

The volunteer group visits the ranch one or two times a year to perform regular maintenance, such as rebuilding fences, hanging gates, picking up litter, or helping with various ranch improvement projects. In turn, the landowner allows continued public access.

The Department maintains lists of landowners and groups, giving them the opportunity to link up for a mutually beneficial relationship that also benefits the public.

Landowner Respect Program

This is a voluntary program that fosters cooperation between landowners/lessees and the public to develop solutions to potential conflicts. The Department works with landowners/lessees to install various informative and regulatory signs.

The aluminum signs inform the public of laws and etiquette for using ranch lands. The signs also improve the effectiveness of law enforcement efforts. All materials requested are free of charge and imply no obligation from the landowner to permit access to all users.

The Respect Program also provides a limited number of sign-in boxes, fence ladders, gates, and kiosks. All materials remain the property of the Arizona Game and Fish Department and are removed if the landowner chooses not to participate in the program any longer.

The Respect Program provides about $15,000 worth of signs every year to more than 300 cooperating ranches throughout the state. The program covers more than 10.6 million acres.

Habitat Partnership Committee

The Arizona Habitat Partnership Committee (HPC) and affiliated Local Habitat Partnership Committees (LHPC) were established by the Arizona Game and Fish Commission in 1992. Although the program was originally created to reduce elk and livestock conflicts and promote partnerships through cooperative projects, its concept expanded to focus on all wildlife habitat management and related projects.

HPCs are designed to facilitate local decision-making regarding wildlife habitat issues and improvements, and act as a vehicle for partnership development and communication between private landowners, members of the public, local and national conservation organizations, and state and federal entities.

The primary funding mechanism for HPC projects comes through the efforts of wildlife conservation organizations that market and sell special big-game license tags (SBGLT) awarded to them by the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. These sales raise about $1.4 million annually, with 100 percent of the proceeds returned to the Department.

These same organizations then work cooperatively with the Department to identify quality projects to be implemented using SBGLT funding.

The HPC and SBGLT programs also provide financial support for the Landowner Relations Program on important projects that benefit wildlife and maintain access for the public. An example of this is elk tag funding, allocated through the HPC, to provide water enhancement projects on the Big Boquillas Ranch.

These cooperative projects have helped maintain public access on this large private ranch, which is owned by the Navajo Nation. In addition, stewardship projects funded through elk tag dollars have helped to mitigate influences of elk on private lands, and deer and pronghorn tag dollars have funded projects for dirt tank clean outs that have helped to maintain relations with lessees and enhance relations on private lands.

Leveraging Partnerships And Outside Funding

The Department actively seeks opportunities to partner with other agencies and pursue funding opportunities related to recreational access and improving relationships with private landowners.

For example, working in partnership with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), we’ve been able to hire four regional Landowner Relations Specialists that are split-funded between the Arizona Game and Fish Department and NRCS to work on access and habitat issues on ranches across the state.

Through the Department’s successful grant application to a federal Farm Bill program (the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Improvement Program), Arizona Game and Fish will receive $1.7 million over three years to provide to landowners, through short-term access agreements, for projects that ensure recreational access to and through private lands and improve wildlife habitat.

Hunting Access In Counties And Municipalities

Over the past year the Department was able to successfully implement legislation that added nearly one million acres of lands accessible to hunting in proximity to municipalities. Many of these lands were uninhabited annexed areas on the outskirts of cities and towns, not slated for development for many years. Hunting had been an appropriate use of the annexed lands but was prohibited due to municipal firearms ordinances or existing state law. The Arizona Game and Fish Commission and Department took a thoughtful, conservative approach in implementing the new laws in close coordination with municipal and county authorities.

Federal Land Management

A significant portion of Arizona consists of public land managed by federal agencies such as the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Management of, and access to, various forms of recreation on those lands is impacted by a variety of factors, including a growing population, increased visitation, resource protection, and diverse public values over use of the land.

The Department is regularly engaged with those agencies on issues involving the management of those lands, including Forest Plans and Resource Management Plans, Travel Management Plans, wilderness and monument designations that sometimes carry the possibility of restrictions on outdoor recreation such as target shooting, vehicular access, dispersed camping and off-highway vehicles, and others.

The Department’s Future Efforts

The Commission and the Department are committed to ensuring recreational access for the public through the aforementioned efforts, as well as through ongoing engagement in new and creative ways to form relationships with private landowners and land management agencies that result in cooperative solutions to difficult recreational access issues.

These issues continually change over time, and we are committed to a flexible, adaptive approach that takes into consideration the full spectrum of activities, policies, rules, and on-the-ground relationship building to ensure recreational access for Arizonans.

If you are interested in contributing to the Department’s efforts, there are opportunities available to volunteer your time and efforts. More information is available by contacting the Department’s Volunteer Coordinator at (623) 236-7311. Monetary donations are also accepted and will be used specifically on activities that ensure public access.


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