Pheasants Forever’s model empowers chapters across pheasant country to turn their dollars into forever habitat for wildlife … and permanent access for hunters. Here is how it’s done.
Story by Andrew Johnson, photos by Aaron Black-Schmidt
I joined Pheasants Forever because I love pheasants and pheasant hunting. Chances are those same reasons got your foot in the door too.
But Pheasants Forever’s focus on “forever” has become one of the main reasons I stay.
The Habitat Organization boasts a robust and active land acquisition program that finds, acquires, restores and protects land that is forever open to public hunting access. In fact, Pheasants Forever has been involved with 1,725 acquisition projects totaling 218,591 acres — that’s 341 square miles.
And local chapters are key to the land acquisition process.
The numbers fly somewhat under the radar, though, as Pheasants Forever rarely owns the new ground for the long term, says Eran Sandquist, PF’s Minnesota state coordinator.
“We do hold title on a couple properties, but we’re basically ‘middlemen’ in the process,” says Sandquist, who has helped close over 380 acquisitions since 2009. “We help buy the land and restore it, but then we hand it off to an agency partner for long-term ownership and management. In other words, it’s not a Pheasants Forever sign hanging on the property when all is said and done.”
It’s important to understand that land deals here are different than land deals over there, as every state or region has its own rules, regulations and programs that affect each transaction. But land acquisitions happen all the time, and successful ones often have several things in common.
If you or your chapter has an interest in permanently protecting land for wildlife and wildlife lovers to enjoy — and that includes hunting — here’s how to get it done.
CONSERVATION STARTS WITH CONVERSATION
Land acquisitions often start at the granular level with some hard work by regular folks like you and me. Raising awareness at chapter events is an important first step, says Uriah Hansen, president of Iowa’s Northern Polk Pheasants Forever chapter.
“We’ve got to do a better job of telling our story, because local chapters have spent millions on land acquisitions and nobody really knows about it,” he says. “Most people go to banquets and other Pheasants Forever events to socialize, but we’ve tried hard to paint the picture of where, exactly, their dollars are going. Having those conversations and raising awareness ahead of time has allowed our chapter to be ready and quickly move forward when a property becomes available.”
Nobody knows acquisition opportunities better than local chapter folks like you and me.
To hammer the point home, Hansen takes advantage of every opportunity to tell people how the Northern Polk chapter alone has spent over $250,000 on new ground, most of which is near the Chichaqua Bottoms habitat complex, a large public area just outside of Des Moines that stretches for miles along the Skunk River.
On top of that, Hansen says the chapter has spent thousands more by contributing funds to neighboring chapter acquisitions.
Conservation starts with a conversation, and Hansen says nowhere is that more evident than when buying land to restore and permanently protect for future generations. He says tag-teaming small projects with other chapters or even other conservation agencies can lead to discussions about larger projects, including land acquisitions.
“It’s a case where chapters scratch each other’s back, and that doesn’t happen without first having a conversation,” he says. “We’ve seen the payback, too, because everyone involved in the process sees the on-the-ground value of their dollars at work.”
“Most of us can’t afford to buy land for ourselves that we can leave to our kids,” Hansen says. “But together we can leave hundreds, thousands of acres of public ground for all our kids and grandkids to enjoy. Our fingerprint is on those acres forever. That’s our legacy.”
TARGET STRATEGIC TRACTS OF LAND
When dealing with any kind of real estate, location matters. Sandquist says land projects near other public lands that meet a few additional criteria stand a much better chance of being supported by Pheasants Forever at the organizational level.
“We generally don’t target prime farmland,” he says. “Rather, strategic priority parcels are often marginal cropland with restoration opportunities where habitat can be added or protected. Or they’re grasslands that are at high risk of conversion. Many times ideal properties are also adjacent or in close proximity to other protected habitat where they can enhance local and national conservation plans or help protect threatened and endangered species.”
Sandquist says location also matters to partner agencies that eventually assume ownership of the land. Whether it’s a county, state or federal agency that becomes the long-term holder of the property, he says they all try to create efficiency in terms of how they manage properties.
“They’re looking to stretch their dollar as much as we are, so the location has got to make sense to them, too,” he says. “They’re much more likely to partner with us on a project next door rather than adding a separate 40-acre tract that’s miles away from anything else.”
LET THE PROS HELP HANDLE IT
The importance of chapter efforts to provide ideas, local support and advocacy for land acquisition projects cannot be overstated. And once a strategic chunk of ground is identified, it’s important for a chapter to share it with Pheasants Forever staff right away, says Jordan Martincich, director of development.
“It is becoming increasingly challenging, and in many instances impossible, for chapters to raise the necessary funds to acquire a property entirely on their own. So the first thing a chapter should do if they identify a strategic land acquisition opportunity is contact a member of Pheasants Forever’s team to elevate the opportunity within the organization,” he says. “This will provide our land acquisition experts with the ability to determine the public access and conservation benefits associated with the project, as well as put us in position to visit with our conservation partners about the land.”
Martincich says cost is often the biggest hurdle of the process, where the sheer amount of money it takes to buy land causes chapters unfamiliar with the process to shy away from tackling a land acquisition project. However, there are a number of funding programs available, which are often state-specific, that can help secure land until the long-term holder can finally purchase it.
In some cases it’s a nonprofit, such as the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, which basically acts like a public land broker that eventually hands off the land to the long-term holder. In other cases, funding programs for habitat and access are established by state statute, such as South Dakota’s Second Century Initiative or Minnesota’s Legacy Fund. Other states call similar funds by other names, and grants of all shapes and sizes are available from federal, civic and other conservation-oriented resources with mutual interest in protecting not only habitat, but also enhancing water quality, protecting endangered species or saving grasslands.
In short: If your chapter sees a prime acquisition opportunity, there are plenty of ways to help fund it.
In addition, Martincich says chapters can also benefit from the Pheasants Forever Land Loan Fund, which can help bridge the gap while the broader funding package is being developed.
“The fund has historically been used to acquire property for temporary ownership by Pheasants Forever while the long-term owner, typically a state or federal agency, moves through their acquisition process to eventually buy the property from PF,” he says. “We also have our Build A Wildlife Area (BAWA) program, which we use as a platform to generate gifts and other financial support for land purchases.”
Because Pheasants Forever briefly owns these properties, it’s necessary to engage a member of the employee team before progressing with any landowner or partner negotiations. Engaging a member of the team as quickly as possible will create the best scenario for success, Martincich advises.
Bottom line: Your local, state or regional Pheasants Forever representative can help you get things going.
Sandquist urges chapters to find quality projects and share them with those state or regional Pheasants Forever representatives regardless of the price tag.
“Don’t worry about the cost; we’ll take that on,” Sandquist says. “We’re intimately familiar with state, federal and other conservation players that can help fund a good part of the project, and it’s my (and other reps’) job to find enough money to buy the land and restore it.”
“It’s been my experience that if the core partners — everyone from chapter volunteers to Pheasants Forever employees to agency staff — are truly committed to a project, we will find a way to make it work,” he says.
DON’T GIVE UP
Land deals don’t happen overnight. Sandquist says the best advice he can offer is to never give up if a deal isn’t approved, or if it falls through at the last minute.
“There’s no doubt it can be frustrating,” he says. “In Minnesota, for example, anywhere from 100 to 200 potential projects come to us each year even though we might only have enough funding to do 30 or 35. That means we have to be very strategic in which properties we can pursue.”
However, Sandquist says it pays to be persistent, even if a chapter has been told no several times in a row.
“The hardest part is getting that first one. But boy word travels fast as success breeds success,” he says. “Once you complete a project or two in an area, people come out of the woodwork that want to work with you. Neighbors talk, and when they see our commitment to conservation and learn how our work can benefit their marginal crop ground, they want in.”
To that end, Pheasants Forever has received more than $10 million in land-value donations from landowners selling their properties to PF over the last 11 years in Minnesota alone.
“There’s a huge seller legacy aspect to this that shouldn’t go unnoticed, where it’s so important their land is protected and open to public access that they’re willing to take less money than what the land appraised for. In turn, those cost savings have helped us buy a lot more land,” Sandquist says.
Along the same lines, Pheasants Forever’s growing land acquisition reputation has picked up steam with partner agencies, too, where now they’re asking PF for help on land deals. As an example, Martincich points to the relationship PF has forged with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
“Only a few short years ago, Pheasants Forever was not leveraging our efforts to buy properties in Kansas. Now we are the go-to organization for the state wildlife agency when a property is available,” he reports. “This shows that with some vision, commitment and a whole bunch of passion, PF can get in the land purchase game in new geographies and make a difference.”
IF YOU BUILD IT…
In August 2019 a 277-acre waterfowl production area (WPA) was dedicated in central Minnesota that Sandquist says epitomizes the acquisition mission of Pheasants Forever.
In addition to some mature hardwoods, the property now features 75 acres of wetlands and over 127 restored acres of uplands open to the public for hunting and recreation. Prior to becoming a WPA, the land had been home to the Erpelding family for five generations, spanning 115 years.
“Ron Erpelding, the prior owner, came to us because he wanted our help in turning his century farm into a federal WPA for everyone to enjoy,” Sandquist recalls. “He contacted the local Stearns County Pheasants Forever chapter, and we closed on the property in 2015, restored it in fall 2016 and finished in summer 2017.”
Erpelding wasn’t much of a hunter, but Sandquist says he was an avid birder who kept detailed records of the birds he’d seen on his property, dating back to 1961.
“On his list were around 180 species — everything from snow geese to songbirds,” Sandquist continues. “In the first couple years of grassland development, he’s seen three new species he’s never documented before. That just goes to show if you build wildlife habitat, the wildlife will respond, whether you’re talking about pheasants, turkey, deer or non-game species.”
“That’s the beauty of our work,” he says. “We’re not just doing this for our own benefit. It’s for everyone. You don’t even have to be a pheasant hunter to enjoy it.”
Help in the PF acquisition efforts! If you know of a candidate property, contact a local chapter leader. Find a local chapter at pheasantsforever.org/Participate/Find-a-Chapter.aspx
Andrew Johnson is a family man, outdoorsman, writer, and devoted friend of Pheasants Forever, from Tea, South Dakota.
This story originally appeared in the Fall 2020 Issue of the Pheasants Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to read more great upland content, become a Pheasants Forever member today!