Questions about Public Hunting Lands in Iowa

Several months ago, I received an email from Josh Neville, a college student from Iowa. Josh read my post about the amount of public hunting land available by state. He was working on a class project and wanted to know why Iowa had so few acres of public hunting land. We both invested time and energy going back and forth in our “conversation”, so I thought it might be useful for other people with similar questions to see our correspondence with Josh’s questions and my attempts to answer.


Hi my name is Josh Neville and I am a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and entrepreneurship.

Like you, I am an avid outdoorsman and love bowhunting, especially in the the vast public grounds of the West.

I am emailing you today because I am doing a class project about the small amount of public hunting land Iowa has to offer.

I was wondering if I could ask you a few question about public hunting lands and see what your thoughts are on why Iowa has so few acres of public hunting land?


Josh Neville

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Iowa Hunting & Fishing

Reply to Josh Neville:

I will be glad to answer some questions for your class project. Send your questions to me and I will answer them the best I can.

I am not familiar with Iowa, but I suspect the lack of public land has much to do with the history of settlement and the Homestead Act. There is so much public land in the West because people had not yet claimed it before the Federal government set up Forest Reserves that later became the National Forests (1891).

The BLM was specifically created to “disperse” federal lands, mostly through the Homestead Act, which did not end until 1976.

How much public land was still available for the taking in Iowa in 1976? My guess is zero.

I read your article “Total Public Hunting Land Acres Available by State for USFS, BLM & State Owned Lands” It was very informational and gave me a lot of information about each states amount of public hunting land and ultimately led to me finding Iowa had so few acres to offer compared to most of the other states.

For my class project, we have to use data and make an info gram. I thought it would be cool to show a map of the US, which would show the total amount of acres each state has and the amount of acres of public hunting land they offer. I think this would be a great visual showing which states have the most public hunting land.

I was wondering if I could use some of your data that you gathered to make this map? I would definitely attribute that I got the data from you, I just want to make sure it is alright with you?

Thanks for everything and taking the time to answer some of my questions, I really appreciate it.


Reply to Josh:

Of course you can use the data and thanks for giving me credit.


Thanks for replying.

Going off your reply about the little amount of public hunting land in Iowa, it makes complete sense with the Homestead Act. I would suspect that Iowa had most of its land already purchased by individuals for agriculture and such by 1976 when it was repealed.

I hope I have not bombarded you with questions, I wanted to get as much background information about the public hunting lands and you seem very knowledgeable about this topic. I have found they do not provide very much information about the public hunting lands in Iowa, rather just a broad overview of what they have.

Question: So in 1891 when the National Forest Reserve Act (NFMA) was passed, was that how the states acquired national forest and public hunting lands? I guess my real question is, was the NFMA  how states got the public hunting lands they have today?

Answer: Public Hunting Lands are various lands owned or leased by each State. In many cases, these areas are owned by the State’s Division/Department Natural Resources (DNR)/Wildlife (DWR) (or whatever the State calls the agency responsible for Wildlife Management (e.g. the old name Fish & Game). In Iowa, the DNR has Wildlife Management Areas that total about 356,000 acres, which is more acres than I included in my original table, but is still just under 1% of the State. They supplement this with about 8,000 acres of private land enrolled in their Habitat and Access Program, but that barely increases the total hunting area to just over 1%.

To answer your original question about how states acquired public hunting lands, specifically for Iowa, I had to do a little research on Iowa’s history to understand today’s situation.

Iowa was part of the Louisiana Purchase, so in 1803, all of Iowa was owned by the Federal Government. By 1838 there were only 22,859 settlers in Iowa, but that number almost doubled to 42,112 by 1840 (Cardinal Goodwin, The American Occupation of Iowa, 1833 to 1860, 17, The Iowa Journal of History and Politics 83, 101, 1919) and by 1850, that number had exploded to 192,214 people (of European decent) in Iowa (Jacob Van Der Zee, British Emigrants to Iowa, in The British in Iowa 17, 32, 1922), so there must have been a huge demand for land.

In 1856, congress granted over 4 million acres to railroad to build lines across Iowa (between 6 – 9 miles on each side of the track). By 1857, most of the land was in private hands with just over 8% remaining in 16 northwest counties (Online paper). According the the author (Paul Gates), “Iowa had been so unfortunate to have its public lands surveyed and brought into the market relatively early, well in advance of settlement…”, Meaning land speculators had bought land and were waiting to sell it at a profit to new settlers. Gates also stated that same year, President Buchanan ordered almost 2.9 million acres to be sold to settlers.

If 8% were remaining, that should be about 2.9 million acres, so evidently, all remaining land was up for sale, so no wonder there is so little public land in Iowa and even less land available for public hunting.

My original assumption about the amount of land transferred during the Homestead Act, does not hold for Iowa, because according to Gate’s article, less than 5% of Land was transferred under the homestead act.

So to have acquired 356,000 acres, the State of Iowa must have had or currently have a program or policy to buy land. And they do; The Iowa Code states “Relative to other midwestern states, Iowa ranks last in the proportion of land acquired and protected for public open space“, so they created the “Open Space Acquisition and Protection Program” to “Acquire and protect those properties on a priority basis through a variety of appropriate means.”

Question: I know right now there is an uprising out west with having the possibility of private citizens being able to purchase public lands. Why would the states even think about selling the public lands to private citizens?

Answer: Yes Josh, there is a push in some Western States to take over Federal Lands for development and managment. Obviously, everyone does not think like we do. Some people would cover the entire world in asphalt if it made their lives easier or gave them wealth. If there is money to be made, there will always be someone willing to make that money, no matter the consequence to the habitat, the wildlife or to other people.

In some cases, selling (or trading) public land may be good for wildlife. There are areas where State or Federal land is isolated within private lands and it may make more sense to trade land with private land owners to create larger blocks of continuous lands.

Some small communities in the West have no room to expand because they are surrounded by public lands. As their populations increase, there will be more pressure for more room for houses, sewer systems and landfills.

As an example of how people look at things differently, You may or not be familiar with William Mulholland, who once famously said that the Yosemite Valley should be dammed “from one side of that valley to the other and stop the goddamned waste!” Many people today are glad Yosemite National Park exists (un-dammed), but many parts of Southern California are short of water today.

Question: Are states losing the amount of public hunting land they have today? If so, why are they losing the public hunting lands?

Answer: We have to assume that every acre covered with concrete is lost (at least for now) for the use of wildlife and for the use of surviving generations for hunting. I say for now because I recently watched a TV show about jaguars in Central America. They searched many remote areas looking for jaguars, but finally found them in the center of an ancient Mayan city, so in time, our most developed areas will return to the wild.

There is no development in the West that does not occur in the last best remaining wintering habitat for elk and mule deer. Most development is on private land, but converting sage covered valleys to reservoirs is also development and that does occur on public lands. A new reservoir will create a new fishery, but the sage grouse may be lost and Winter habitat for deer and elk will be reduced.

I have stopped hunting one of my favorite areas for elk. Not because elk are no longer there. In fact they are still there, but because the energy development that has occurred on the public land is too ugly and too noisy for me to enjoy hunting there. The energy development is supposed to be temporary. When the oil and gas are extracted, the equipment should be removed and the habitat restored. We hope that most species will remain or at least can recover or return quickly.

Energy independence from the Middle East is a good thing but there is a price to pay for it and I get to see it in my back yard. Same thing for wind development on public lands. Wind farms require constant maintenance, so areas that might have seen less than 10 people per year on foot or horseback now have well maintained roads that are constantly used by maintenance trucks.

The short answer to why we are losing both private and public hunting land is development because of our growing population. People need places to live, work and play.

As another example, many ski areas in the West are on public land. They provide some use to wildlife, but they are used year round for recreation (skiing in Winter and mountain biking in Summer), so you can’t (or don’t want to) hunt there anymore.

Question: Why do you think states such as New Jersey, which is nearly 7 times smaller than Iowa, has almost two times more acres of public hunting land to offer than Iowa?

Answer: That is a reflection of individual state priorities and the state’s history. No state started with the same available resources or priorities and New Jersey was developed before Iowa. Not all of the land was suitable for farming, so it may have been passed over. There is also land that was farmed, but has since been abandoned and returned to forests. At one time, these lands were probably privately owned, but were later purchased or given to the state. You may find more info if you search the history of State Forests and Reserves in N.J. and Iowa.

I also assume access to public land for hunting was more important to the citizens in N.J. than those in Iowa. People in this country say conservation is important, but it seems that every time the economy (jobs) clashes with conservation, the economy wins. So, people may say one thing, but what they do tells what their real priorities are. If public hunting land was a big priority for a majority of Iowa citizens, there would be more public hunting land in Iowa.

I was recently helping a friend of mine that is a fishing guide, to guide a young couple from California. They were amazed at the amount of public land and the quality of the fish and wildlife habitat we still have. They assumed this was due to the fact that the people of our state had done such a good job of preserving the habitat and the fish and wildlife populations. They are wrong. Our state just hasn’t had time to screw it up yet.

In a discussion on a local wildlife network, many wanted to stop a road that is being built into a great hunting area for oil and gas development. You would think most hunters would be against the road, but some said they didn’t care how many roads were built until gas prices were below $3 again.

In the past, the land ethic was purely economic and utilitarian, but now there is also a conservation ethic (e.g. Aldo Leopold) that was not present when N.J. and Iowa were being settled and developed. The conservation ethic does not always win, but at least we have the conversation now before forests are cleared, oil wells are built or rivers are diverted.

Question:  Final question, why are public hunting lands important for the state and why are they important overall?

Answer: All public land is not just for hunting. I like to think about wildlife habitat first purely for the intrinsic value of wild lands and wildlife and then our ability to hunt, fish, hike, camp and enjoy those lands second. We must preserve, protect or restore habitats first before we can reap any of the benefits later.

There are also very different types of hunting land. You can probably hunt pheasants and white-tail deer on farmland in Iowa (permission required of course), but backcountry/roadless/wilderness areas in the West are very different ecosystems with different opportunities and challenges. I like knowing there are lands still close to a natural state for the natural world to “do it’s thing”.

Many conservation organization (Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Mule Deer Foundation, Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited) constantly make the point about the economic value of hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation. There are also special taxes (Pittman-Robertson) that hunters and fishermen pay that benefit all wildlife.

I don’t need any justification to preserve wild lands and you probably don’t either, but many people (voters) do.

Thanks for taking the time to reply to those questions, I know it can be a drag answering questions from some college student but I really do appreciate it and its a subject I am really passionate about.

Josh Comment: Josh completed his class project and at least for now, the University of Iowa has it posted here.

Nice job Josh!

I turned the tables on Josh and asked him a few questions about himself and how he got interested in hunting and other outdoor activities.

Question for Josh:  What do you hunt in Iowa and where do you hunt?

Answer: I try to hunt and trap everything that is legal to hunt in Iowa (not near as much as I would like). I primarily bowhunt whitetails and turkey in Iowa. Not a
whole lot to choose from but I try to make do with the opportunities Iowa has to offer. I love hunting those animals but I would rather hunt mule deer and elk on a regular basis. Which is the reason I plan on moving that way [out West] after I graduate.

I have permission to hunt on several properties in the south west part of Iowa. Which is where I was this weekend hunting.

Question for Josh: You mentioned you like to bow hunt in the West. What states have you hunted and for what game species?

Answer: I have personally hunted in Wyoming and Colorado for elk and antelope the past two years. So far unsuccessful but absolutely had a blast chasing those awesome animals. I have been building up points for many of the western states for the past couple years, to hopefully get one of those coveted tags later. I also have hunted in Nebraska, Texas and Canada and the species I hunted in those states were pig, turkey and bear.

Question for Josh: Usually, when someone hunts out of state, it is because they know someone there and have contacts. How did you start hunting in other states?
How about a good hunting story?

Answer: Yeah I know a lot people head out west because they have contacts and I sure wish I had contacts because it would have made it a lot easier for me.

When I went to Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska I did not have any contacts I just knew I had to be out there. So I did a lot of research in areas and narrowed down the areas I wanted to go to. In Wyoming and Colorado I hunting on public ground for elk and antelope. I talked to COs in areas and figured the estimated population of the animals. I then headed out there by myself and did it the old fashion way by setting up camp and trying to figure out the terrain and movement of the animals when I got out there. I was not success in Colorado or Wyoming, not that I did not see anything. I actually missed a big goat on the last day. Over all it was a great experience for me and I learned a lot about hunting and everything I need to do to be prepared for future adventures and also knowing the terrain will make it much easier for me to get on animals now.

I have always dreamed about going west and chasing some of Americas most beautiful animals on America’s last untouched lands. Ever since I was young I have always to go westward to try my luck with the many species they have to offer. So when I got into college, I started researching hunts out west and everything I needed to do to get prepared for hunts there. My junior year in college I went to Wyoming to try my luck for some antelope near Douglas. It was more than I could have ever imagined, the amount of vast openness was unbelievable to me and something I absolutely loved.  I knew from that point,  the West was were I belong.

I have always done everything on my own since I was a young, I grew up living in the country and always have been fascinated with the outdoors. So I taught my self how to bow hunt because no one in my family hunts of any sort. It was a lot harder for my brother and I to learn all the basics to hunt but I believe doing it that way really teaches you all the aspects about hunting that most people would not know otherwise. Which is the  reason I did not have any contacts out of state to help me out. I talked to a lot of people over the phone and did a lot of research of where to go in those states. Even though I did not kill anything in Wyoming or Colorado, it was worth every second being by myself out in the Medicine Bow Mountains or the foothills in Wyoming. I finally realized what hunting meant to me, it is much more then simply killing stuff. Just being in natural habitat of all the animals and trying to survive like them is worth it. Comment: Josh is exactly the kind of person I had in mind when I wrote The DIY Elk Hunting Guide. People that have the desire, but need a little encouragement and some advice. Josh didn’t need a much encouragement, he simply had enough desire that he did it on his own. Even more impressive that he didn’t come from a family with a hunting background. He made it happen. Keep it up Josh, I have no doubt you will be successful in the near future. I think we can say the future of hunting is in good hands with passion and desire like Josh has shown.

Question for Josh: Over the years, many of my field techs were city kids that took an interest in wildlife/outdoor activities. Seriously, I have had to teach them how to change tires before I could send them off into the middle of nowhere for surveys. What is your background and how did you get into hunting?

Answer: Like I said before I grew up in the country. I have always been fascinated with the outdoors. Hunting sort of came naturally to me. I knew it was something that I wanted to pursue to be able to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors for years to come. I started hunting/trapping when I was 8 years old. I set a small trap line in creek behind my house and caught quite a few raccoon, I then started started stretching and tanning the hides my self. I did that until I was about 12, then I started to get into bowhunting. This was a whole new ball game for me, and have been obsessed with bowhunting ever since. I hope to keep hunting and being a conservationist for years to come.

Bowhunting and the outdoors is an occupation that I plan to pursue a career in. The passion for the outdoors has opened some doors for me and hopefully I can find a career in the outdoor industry .

Thanks Dan for everything, it has been a pleasure talking to you. It is nice talk to someone who is informed about stuff in the outdoors rather than what is going on Hollywood or something like that. Comment:

Josh has since graduated and moved to Colorado where he has a job with an outdoor marketing firm. It will take him until the 2016 season to be able to buy a resident Colorado tag, but I’ll bet it wont be long until he has an elk in his freezer. Good luck Josh. And thank you for contacting me, I enjoyed our conversation.

Iowa Hunting & Fishing

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