How We Pay for Public Lands (and where can I go turkey hunting?)


Turkey Hunt: Mike LeahyI have never shot a turkey. I’m generally okay with that because my turkey hunts have been epic in other ways – days spent with friends enjoying spectacular vistas and watching other wildlife.

Except that I really want to get a turkey. And my nephew has requested a wild one for Thanksgiving. The question now is: Where can I go to find one?

When I lived in Montana, the only debate was which public lands to hunt that day. My friends and I put in a lot of miles chasing Merriam turkeys around badlands and breaks. While we never got a turkey, we had only ourselves to blame – mostly me. My turkey calling skills are apparently only good enough to seduce an old Tom to within about 100 yards. Then he realizes the old raspy hen he’d been hearing is really a gravelly guy with a beard – and the turkey bolts back into the brush.

In Montana, my excuse was always rookie hunting buddies and sparse turkey populations across massive public landscapes. Back east, it’s the opposite: Wild turkeys abound, as do wily Izaak Walton League hunters to show me the ropes. But I wasn’t sure there were many public places to hunt in the suburbs of Washington, DC, where the Izaak Walton League is headquartered.

Izaak Walton League chapters in the area offer some incredible landscapes for habitat and hunting, and I have enjoyed those repeatedly. But the general public needs places to go too. That is where the Land and Water Conservation Fund comes in – an iconic American conservation program that needs the support of outdoorsmen and women to survive.

The League’s conservation policy handbook sums up this nationwide program nicely: “The primary mission of the Land and Water Conservation Fund is the acquisition of the land base for outdoor recreation and the preservation of our natural heritage.” Legend has it that the Fund was dreamt up and drafted by Joe Penfold, the man who had my job back in the 1960s. Penfold’s legend is backed up by his successes – among many others, this idea became law in 1965.

Over the past 50 years, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has paid for more than 41,000 projects – in virtually every county across the country – that provide outdoor recreation and conservation benefits to Americans and our guests. This includes millions of acres of new public lands and waters and more than 29,000 outdoor recreation facilities.

McKee Beshers WMAOne of those places is a 2,000-acre Maryland Wildlife Management Area just outside DC, where my little brother and I got into a big Tom within 5 minutes of arriving. Until I snapped a twig. The Land and Water Conservation Fund also helped pay for the 6,000-acre Seneca Creek State Park, which winds through the county like a ribbon, where you can fish, hike, and mountain bike – and where my friend in the tree stand next to mine shot a beautiful doe with his bow.

These areas are small by western standards but vital to the health and happiness of the local populace – and local wildlife. Even residents who never set foot on these public lands benefit from cleaner air and water and better views. And, this being Washington, you can hear just about any language coming out of the duck blind or pick-up next to yours, because these lands are for every citizen.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund plays an often different – but equally important – role out west. It is more likely to fill gaps in a sea of public lands than create gaps of public lands in a sea of suburbs. The Fund supports much more than hunting and fishing grounds though. Communities use their share of the money for everything from city parks to public pools. And it is entirely paid for by a small share of royalties from the sale of public oil and gas reserves – brilliant idea, Mr. Penfold!

The Land and Water Conservation Fund is one of the most popular and successful conservation programs in history – and it’s set to expire at the end of September. However, our U.S. Senators and Representatives can’t seem to get on the same page long enough to reauthorize it.

We need you call your members of Congress or shoot them an e-mail to say that you support reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund. You can find sample language in our Advocacy Center.

I have a one week fall turkey season left to finally get a turkey for my table this year. Outdoor recreation across America has a much less certain fate.