A lot has changed since Dave Milton brought his gun to school in the back of his truck after an early morning hunt in the woods. Milton grew up in Albertville and is now president of AlaLandCo, one of the state’s largest land brokerage firms. “I’m a lifelong hunter, ” Milton says.
He’s not alone. For as long as anyone’s grandfather can remember, Alabama men have been heading to the their hunting camps for a weekend of camaraderie in the woods.
While many families own property, many more partner with friends to purchase a hunting lease. Sandy Stimpson, executive vice president of Scotch Gulf Lumber, says that years ago, “People would almost give you the hunting rights, charging only ad valorem taxes with the understanding that you’d maintain the roads and keep poachers from trespassing.”
Beginning almost three decades ago, however, the cost of leases surged from $5 to $15 an acre per year.
“The increase in cost is primarily due to the resurgence of the deer and turkey population and the value that hunters place on enjoying the experience that results from abundant game populations, ” says Tim Gothard, executive director of Alabama Wildlife Federation.
Organized clubs, which share the cost of maintaining land and facilities through annual dues, range in size from one member per 100 acres to one member per 500 acres and charge between $500 and $10, 000 per year, according to Stimpson. Although spats over club policies are frequent, joining a club makes sense in a sport that is social by nature. Says Gothard, “Quail hunting, for instance, is often called ‘golf with a gun.’”
For premium land, hunters look to the soil of Alabama’s Black Belt, where rich earth means healthier crops and superior deer—and a better chance of shooting something worth mounting. Generational loyalty is important, too. Whether a boy hunted river swamp or piney woods, he’s likely to return to the same type land as a man. “Some of it is an Auburn/Alabama thing, ” Milton notes. “Graduates of The University of Alabama like to hunt south of Tuscaloosa, areas like Greene County; Auburn alumni stick to counties around Montgomery.”
Ups and Downs of Land Values
The price of recreational land soared between 1992 and 2007, as Alabama hunters—often tired of negotiated club policies—sought to secure “their own little slice of heaven, ” explains Jimbo Yance, owner of Mobile-based Yance Land & Development Inc. “The politics of hunting clubs drove the market for recreational land. Buyers wanted to make their own decisions, to have a place where club rules didn’t apply.”
In these boom years, buyers came from Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia to enjoy the abundance of bird and beast. Although much of the land boasted fertile soil and harvestable timber, Milton remembers that his clients were not profoundly concerned about investment in timber or alternate ways the land could be profitable. “Used to be, ” he explains, “they’d just buy the land to hunt. If they liked it, they bought it.”
Many plowed money into priming their property for recreational use. Well-equipped lands include several lakes stocked with fish, a network of interior access roads, a slew of elevated shooting houses and a campsite complete with a multi-bedroom lodge and outhouses. “Management of game has become a big deal.
People want to grow bigger deer, ” Yance says. Serious hunters supplement the natural browse by planting soybeans, lablab and other legumes to augment the deer’s protein intake. Some landowners erect a perimeter fence to keep the mature, specially fed deer in and the neighbors out.
The rush on recreational land didn’t weather the recession. In 2008, “We really fell off the cliff, ” Milton says. It was a “pretty precipitous drop in real estate and timber, ” he says, and the rural lands he sells took a double hit. As families and corporations tightened their belts, weekends of leisure in woodland getaways “seemed less important in ’08-’09, ” he says. For the first time, the state’s major leasers had tracts of hunting land that went unleased, something unimaginable in pre-recession years.
Sales stabilized by the end of 2010, but buyers today approach potential lands with new sensibilities. Instead of purchasing land purely for hunting, “more people are buying industrial timberland, ” Yance say. “They have to justify their investment in the land by making sure there will be income from the timber.” Now he sees groups of men with similar opinions on wildlife management band together in smaller clubs, allowing them to pursue the sport with neither the cost of individual ownership nor the limitations of a large club. And all the elaborately developed properties? They sell for a song. “Those took the biggest hit, ” Yance notes. “Now, people are just deal-shopping, bottom-feeding.”
The recession did not, however, precipitate a dramatic decrease in the “dirt price” of timberland, or the value of the land excepting the value of the timber. When other real estate properties plummeted, Yance says, “I leaned on my timber background.” He estimates timberland fell 15 to 20 percent in the recession, but “not always that much, and rarely more.”
Stimpson, whose family boasts four generations in the sawmilling business, says the timberland on which most hunting camps sit was “largely in the hands of families prior to the 1960s.” Forest product companies, predominantly paper mills, began buying family-owned sawmilling companies near the end of the decade, often picking up properties when a family could not afford the inheritance tax. Corporate holdings increased until the mid-1990s, when large-scale divesture over the next 10 years sent timberland back into private ownership.
Today, Alabama timberlands not owned by individuals are managed by TIMOs (Timberland Investment Management Organizations), whose institutional investors include pension funds, hedge funds and university endowments. Milton says recent trends towards converting timber tracts to row cropland is another “bright spot” in his AlaLandCo brokerage operation. “They’re not huge sales, ” he explains, “but local farmers have done so well that timber companies sell land to farmers to convert back to plantations. In my opinion, the success of row cropland will be a long-term trend. But most timberland is not on Class I or II soils, so it can’t be very widespread.”
Yance agrees, referencing a 3, 000-acre property he sold in Lillian, once owned by International Paper and recently converted back to farmland. “The peanut market went through the roof, ” he explains. “Last year, farmers made as much as $1, 000 to $1, 200 per acre net profit on peanuts. The government sees a need for cheap protein, ” he concludes, “and converting timberland is cost-effective.”
In addition to what land can grow, prospective buyers ask who lives next door. Neighbors are so crucial when buyers consider a property that Yance says, “it’s usually the first thing they ask.” A couple of decades ago, when fewer families owned more land, “you could hunt just about anywhere, ” Yance recalls. “That’s no longer the case.” When grand estates were divided to accommodate the increased demand for small hunting tracts, new landowners were less tolerant of trigger-happy neighbors. Locals who had hunted that land their entire life grew indignant.
Beyond poaching concerns, potential buyers want to know the wildlife management practices of neighboring properties; a landowner who spends thousands to nurture deer to maturity hardly wants “his” deer to wander a few acres over to be shot and mounted by the neighbors. After all, he says, “The land management practices that produce deer for trophy hunting are expensive.”
For would-be hunters with neither land nor lease, the alternative is state land, like that of publically funded Forever Wild, but “there’s just not a lot of it, ” Yance says.
Landed sportsmen also enjoy the diversity of game on Forever Wild lands, as do out-of-state hunters who come for the state’s extended season. “My understanding, ” says Gunter Guy, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, of those who hunt state land, “is that it’s a little bit of everybody.”
Established by constitutional amendment in 1992, The Forever Wild Land Trust has purchased 227, 000 acres of public land, meaning Alabama has proportionally less state land than all other Southeastern states. Forever Wild receives 10 percent of the annual earnings from the Alabama Trust Fund (ATF), which was created in 1984 to collect income from the sale of drilling rights in coastal waters and royalties on the resulting gas production. The funding for Forever Wild is not to exceed $15 million per year. In 2010, the program received $10 million, which is about average, according to Guy.
The commissioner emphasizes that the net acquisition of public lands, 96.7 percent of which permit hunting, has been relatively small. When he was a boy, Guy explains, “private owners permitted the state to use properties as Wildlife Management Areas”—in effect, as public land. However, “the land became more useful, and people wanted to sell or lease their land, taking it out of public use.” In the last 20 years, the state lost access to 145, 000 acres of land, creating a net gain of just 82, 000 acres.
The Forever Wild Field Trial Area in Hale County was selected to host the 2012 Master National field trial and hunt test that showcases North America’s sharpest retrievers. The October event will bring up to 500 dogs and their owners, trainers and handlers to Demopolis for two weeks and will precipitate “an estimated $5 to $8 billion economic impact” for the Black Belt region, Guy says.
Sandy Stimpson’s father, Billy, counsels, in a memoir kept at the hunting camp, “As you know, things are changing, and then again… maybe not.” Hunters lament the relentless march of technology, from which not even Alabama’s deepest woods have sanctuary. Gadgets and gizmos enhance the hunt, but it is certainly a far cry from the simplicity recalled by Billy: “If it wasn’t for the weather channel, there would not be the need for a T.V. except to watch the Iron Bowl, and then only if Alabama beats Auburn.”
Interest among young hunters has declined a bit, and sportsmen know just where to put the blame. “Being outdoors is a family experience, ” Guy says. “The couch and computer games are not—that doesn’t build a family.”
Yet for the Alabamians who understand the thrill of peering through binoculars on an icy January morning, the warmth of fire and friendship at the end of a good hunt cannot be matched.
“Anyone with walking around sense and money can create a place to hunt and fish, ” writes Stimpson’s father. “But creating an atmosphere where men can enjoy it to the point that it becomes part of their heart and soul is a challenge.”
The Culture of the Camp
More than rural shooting ranges, hunting camps are places where traditions run deep and businessmen build crucial relationships. Sandy Stimpson, executive vice president of Scotch Gulf Lumber, says time spent at his family’s camps is an opportunity to instill courtesy and respect in the next generation. As society’s manners degenerated, he says, “the acceptable behavior changed in the homes and in public places, but not at our hunting camps.”
Generations of Stimpson men have hunted their Washington and Clarke County camps since 1926, when Fred Stimpson and Jim Radcliff formed Bull Pen Hunting Club by opening membership to 17 friends. In a written account of the history of Bull Pen, Stimpson’s father speaks of the club’s jovial manner and of tall tales told ’round a campfire. Men gather after dinner for “… the Kangaroo Court that is traditionally held each evening after the hunt.” Here, young boys are just as proud to have their faces painted with the blood of their first deer as their fathers are abashed to have their shirttails cut for missing a shot.
Jimbo Yance, owner of Mobile-based Yance Land & Development Inc., explains that hunting clubs are not without their tensions; when it comes to land management practices and club policies, there are as many opinions as there are members. Rules that restrict access from wives and children or that specify the age at which a buck may be shot create endless contention. While the experience is not universal, no hunter denies that nasty quarrels can split families and shatter friendships. In any case, it falls to the selected officers to enforce club rules.
Margaret McCrummen is the 2012 editorial intern for Business Alabama.
By Margaret McCrummen