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Posted on Sun, Jun. 27, 2004

Hunting goes down as housing goes up

Hunters are taking a financial hit as land is lost to development


Staff Writer

When he drives by Baxter Village, Fort Mill resident Ed Howe doesn't think about neo-traditionalism or new urbanism.

He thinks about what a good place it used to be to hunt white-tailed deer.

Howe feels the same way when he drives to the Chester County woods of his youth, sites now being purchased by developers whose visions may include homes and strip malls.

"Hunting could very well die after this generation," said Howe, 56.

For the past 10 years, Howe has leased 76 acres of hunting land near Sumter National Forest. The lease expires Thursday. The property was sold in December by Weyerhaeuser Co. to Forest Investment Associates, a developer.

Howe says the lease won't be extended. Members of his hunt club, like members of many other hunt clubs, will be without a place to hunt.

Timber companies, who often leased and encouraged conservation of land, are selling land to developers far more frequently than in the past, hunters and state officials say.

Hunters also say they are competing for leases from wealthier, out-of-state clubs. And public-access land is not the answer, Howe said. Less than half the hunting land available in the state is open to the public, and those places are not nearly as attractive, he said.

When land becomes scarce, the cost of renting it for hunters skyrockets.

"I've been hunting since I was a kid," said Darryl Smith, of Rock Hill, who says he leased 642 acres of land for $12 per acre for a hunt club until an out-of-state club offered $29 per acre for it.

"It's getting to the point now where trying to find a place to hunt has become such a hassle that even dedicated people like myself are about ready to give up on it," Smith said.

On Thursday alone, hunt-club leases on 123,000 acres across the state will expire. Weyerhaeuser, the timber and paper company giant which leased the land to various clubs, has sold the land. It's not clear if the new owner will renew the leases.

The sale is part of a trend affecting more than 1,900 registered hunting clubs in the state and some 4 million acres those clubs lease and manage.

Many of these club members nurture the land, spending large chunks of time before hunting season cutting trails for four-wheelers, setting up tree stands and planting trees where clear-cutting has taken place.

One club planted several tractor trailers full of seed on leased land two years ago, according to one of its members.

Come Thursday, though, those groups might not be able to use that land.

"In some situations, the timber companies are selling out," said Tim Ivey, of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. "It's a corporate decision, based on money."

Hunters see it that way, too.

"Hunters are losing out," said Smith, a fishing boat captain as well as avid hunter. "People are raising timber, not wildlife. If there was more money to be made in asphalt, they'd asphalt all those acres."

Weyerhaeuser, whose 2002 sales totaled $18.5 billion, still manages 28 wildlife sites that comprise 552,000 acres of timberland in the Carolinas, said Susan Larkin, public affairs specialist for Timberlands, a business unit owned by Weyerhaeuser. Larkin says they're dedicated to preserving the land.

But will it be too late for hunting clubs? Clubs charge annual fees, ranging from $200 to $800 per member. The money is used to pay for the leasing of the property, to purchase trees and for hunter education.

For a long time, the marriage between hunting clubs and timber companies was blissful. Nowadays, though, many club members are feeling betrayed. Most won't be critical publicly, but they feel timber companies have done them wrong.

It's not just because they're losing their land. It's also because of the competition they feel has arisen between themselves and developers, a competition that has driven up the cost of leasing or buying the land

Buck Busters, based in Rock Hill and believed to be the largest hunting club in South Carolina, has seen its annual membership prices nearly triple in the past three years, going from $300 to $800 a year. Due to the increasing cost to rent the land, the club also had to reduce its leased property from 31,000 acres to 18,000.

Like almost every other hunt club, Buck Busters is scrambling for members who can afford the prices.

Last week, members from three different hunt clubs, shopping at Catawba Tackle on India Hook Road in Rock Hill, shook their heads in dismay over the Weyerhauser deal, wondering when they'll finally run out of land suitable for hunting.

Larkin would not say the sale was profit-driven but did say the land was sold because it was deemed "nonstrategic."

"Weyerhaeuser pulled the rug out from under all these hunters," Howe said. Howe discovered what other hunters will quickly learn.

Their options are dwindling.

"A lot of timberland property in South Carolina has come up for sale the past two years," said Mike Willis, who does public relations for the Department of Natural Resources. "What we're seeing is, as generations change or turn over, the younger generation is learning it can sell the property and, in lots of cases, become instant millionaires."

It's hardly a reason for sympathy, according to Howe, who said those younger generations don't realize what they're throwing away.

"We have a generation that thinks water comes from a faucet, food comes from Harris Teeter and clothes come from a mall," he said. "People don't realize what is being lost when we destroy the land."

Willis said the state is doing its best to preserve as much land as possible. He cited a deal brokered by South Carolina last month that turned into a success story for hunters.

"A company, Mead Westvaco, sold the state 10,700 acres along the Cooper River," he said. "They were going to sell it to a developer."

A last-second deal orchestrated by Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings resulted in federal grant money that allowed the federal government to buy the land for South Carolina for $47 million, Willis said.

"They were going to put several hundred home sites there," according to Willis.

Now, the DNR will maintain and preserve it, perhaps using it for hunting.

Others know why it's important to preserve the land.

"I can't tell you how many times we've sat on stumps and looked around at land that used to be beautiful and green but now is ravaged," said Smith. "There's just too much money in it now. And that's a shame."

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