Traditional hunting camps losing ground in modern world – The Spokesman-Review

Traditional hunting camps are becoming an endangered species. Between development of once-wild lands and the ever-expanding sprawl of the suburbs, and a general apathy toward the sport from an over-stimulated younger generation, these camps across the country are being phased out in favor of day trips on public lands, pricy and exclusive hunt clubs or even more expensive options such as guided tours or stocked ranches.

According to the 2015-2024 Virginia Deer Management Plan, where I’ve hunted for close to 40 years, 89 percent of the huntable deer habitat in the state exists on private land, much in the form of private hunt clubs and family farms, whereas 11 percent is found on public land.

That stands in stark contrast to the reality of Washington and Idaho, where the percent of public land to hunt on is 32 percent in Washington and 66 percent in Idaho, according to research by BackcountryChronicals.com, citing U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and individual state-owned land data.

Unfortunately, recent changes to the rules for the House of Representatives have eased the path for the federal government to dispose of federal property – including BLM lands, national parks and forests and Federal Wildlife Refuges – back to states, where they could be sold to the highest bidder for whatever purpose that bidder would want, potentially limiting public access and turning over large portions for sale to energy companies or other development.

It’s a development that users of public lands aren’t happy with.

Recently in Utah, in advance of one of the country’s largest outdoor retail shows, an industry executive said the show should leave the state in protest of that state’s policy on public lands. And at least one major retailer is threatening to take its business elsewhere if conservation efforts are overturned.

Outdoors editor Rich Landers profiled the Scoggin family last November, who has camped on the same site on public land in the Umatilla National Forest for five generations, since 1937. It’s a remarkable tribute to perseverance and preservation.

I’ve had the good fortune to have access to a large parcel of private land to hunt whitetail deer my entire life. My father started hunting on the property the year I was born. He and several buddies made camp on the north end of a 1,800-acre property in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in 1967, while the property owner’s family primarily hunted the south end of the tract.

Through the years, our hunt camp became de facto stewards of the north side of the property, posting the lines for the owner and generally keeping an eye out to ensure against the stray trespasser – or kids looking for a good time where they shouldn’t be. There have been very few incidents over the years and what little trouble there has been was corrected quickly.

My pop brought me and both of my brothers to camp with him when he thought we were old – and responsible – enough to handle it. I started going up with him when I was 7. Both my brothers needed an extra year (or two) before they made the trip.

For the first four years, I’d go out on stand with my pop, sitting at his back or by his side, until my fingers and toes would freeze, or I’d have to go to the bathroom, or I’d fall asleep. Only once in those four years of sitting on stand with him did we shoot a deer, but I learned patience and how to watch, listen and even smell for deer.

I passed my pop’s gun safety and accuracy test the year I turned 12, and that fall I carried an old 20-gauge shotgun loaded with a big-game slug. It was a single shot, and my pop gave me one extra slug. “If you do it the right way, you only need one shot,” he’d say. He was right, of course.

My pop passed away in 2011. We lost another old-timer a few years before. And we’ve got a couple of longtime members in their mid-to-late 70s now. We’ve had members come and go, but have always maintained a core of 10 or so regular members.

My middle brother’s 15-year-old son got his first deer this year, the first “first” we’ve had literally in decades. He’s all our camp has for legacies.

The only thing that’s constant in life is change, and things are changing for our hunting camp. A couple of members have been bringing guests and want to add to the membership, which has caused some debate and hurt feelings among the core members. Family responsibilities kept my youngest brother and another member home this year, so attendance was down too.

And really, the biggest potential change of all: the family trust of the original landowner – which includes 12 heirs – voted to explore the option of selling the property. We knew it was inevitable, as they’ve been cutting timber for several years. It wasn’t a unanimous vote, though, so with the difference of opinion among members of the trust, it could be two years or 10 before they agree on how much of the land to sell and come up with a price.

But it’s probably coming.

They could sell to a developer, or an existing hunt club, or a buyer that just won’t honor our access. But there will almost certainly come a time where I won’t have the access to this property I’ve enjoyed my entire life, and I dread the day.

A buddy of mine here grew up outside of Sandpoint, and he and his family have graciously allowed me to hunt their 20 acres the past two deer seasons. It’s beautiful forested land, with the homestead at the top of a bluff with deep valleys surrounding two of the sides of the property, with the rest sloping down to farm land.

I’m glad to have the access, of course, but it’s not close to the same experience I have with my camp in Virginia. I mean, who wants to sleep in a bed in a house with electricity and running water the night before going out on deer stand?

Hunting, to me, is more than the pursuit and harvest of game. I won’t pretend that the singular rush of adrenaline one gets with a nice buck in the crosshairs isn’t real, or not alluring. It most certainly is.

But honestly, the ritual is more about gathering with family, and friends who are family. It’s more about the campfires and cooking and yes, imbibing.

It’s about the shared history and storytelling and making new memories every year.

If that suddenly goes away, or if it slowly erodes as conditions change, it will take away a part of who I am. Our hunting camp has been there my entire life, as a refuge from everything else going on in my life and the world, and I will miss it tremendously if or when it ceases to exist.

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