New program pays landowners, expands Ohio hunting access

By Matt Reese

Hunters can bring value and many benefits to landowners around the state of Ohio. They can also be the source of headaches and challenges for landowners.

In an attempt to minimize the challenges and maximize the benefits of good hunter-landowner relationships in the state, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife has created the Ohio Landowner Hunter Access Partnership (OLHAP) Program.

“It is kind of an improvement over a previous project where they tried to pair landowners who allowed hunting access on their property with hunters. This is a little bit of a change now because there is a payment from the Division of Wildlife to the landowners. Ohio applied for a grant and was awarded farm bill money for the program,” said Tommy Springer, the education/wildlife specialist for Fairfield Soil and Water Conservation District. “Any landowners interested in signing up for the program can sign up small to large acreage. Right now there are nearly 60 different properties enrolled in the program. The smallest property is 6 acres and the largest is 940-some acres.”

OLHAP offers a new way for Ohio hunters to get access to private properties and the chance for property owners to derive some income. This program is funded by the federal farm bill under the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP). As part of the 2018 Farm Bill, Ohio was awarded $1,831,500 to implement OLHAP. The funds are used to pay landowners for hunters to access their property in annual payment rates ranging from $2 to $30 per acre depending on the property. 

The boundaries of the hunting area on a property are set as part of enrolling it in the program.

“You do not have to enroll by parcel or field, you can contact the Division of Wildlife and they will come out and take GPS boundaries. You can walk them around and  they will set the boundaries of where you want access to be allowed on your property. Of the land you enroll, anything they determine to be permanent wildlife habitat, along the lines of woods, wetland areas or CRP ground or warm season grasses, that habitat gets $30 per acre paid to you annually,” Springer said. “It is a 2-year contract and you are paid all of the money up front for both years. Any agricultural ground in row crops, hay field, pasture, that type of thing is paid at $2 per acre per year. You’re basically allowing that demarcated property to be accessed by hunters from around the state.”

Hunters access the properties for a daily permit on the OLHAP website through the Division of Wildlife.

“The hunters have to apply for that permit daily. The open enrollment period for hunting starts at 8 p.m. the day before. So at 8 p.m., the hunters can go into the system and access each property and reserve it for the next day. On a Thursday at 8 p.m. you can register for a Friday hunt. They are given a permit for that day that expires at 10 p.m. the next day. Then the whole process starts all over again. They are only allowed to register 1 hunter per 50 acres of wildlife habitat. So if you enroll 10 acres you don’t have to worry about 10 hunters coming in and scrambling around. If a hunter reserves a permit for your property, the landowner is sent an email with that hunter’s information and the species they are trying to hunt,” Springer said. “By and large it is about deer hunting. There are some wetlands and duck hunters taking advantage of this too. I anticipate in the spring we’ll see some turkey hunting gaining popularity. This does not allow trapping or overnight hunting, like coon hunting. It does not allow deer gun hunting. They can only use archery for deer.”

Participation on OLHAP does not change the landowner’s ability to issue additional permission for hunting outside of the program.

“It does not affect a landowner’s ability to issue permission to hunt on their own. Or, if you have family who comes out every Thanksgiving for a rabbit hunt or a brother-in-law who likes to deer gun hunt, you can still issue permission for people to come onto your property without going through this system,” he said. “Or if you have someone who wants to trap the property, they can approach the landowner personally and ask permission that way.” 

Landowners cannot restrict the days of the week their property can be accessed, but can place some restrictions on the use of their land. 

“There are restrictions that can be selected like no smoking, or there is one property where it is listed that the landowner walks trails on the property daily. The landowners also can set areas where the hunters can park and access the property,” Springer said. “There are other things like no ATV use restrictions so you don’t have to worry about hunters tearing up the property with those.” 

There was an enrollment period for the program last fall prior to the 2021 hunting season and there will likely be another enrollment period for properties coming soon.

“This is a blanket statewide program. The original goal was to enroll 20,000 acres and as of the beginning of December we were sitting at about 8,000 acres enrolled. It was designed to be competitive so there is going to be a scoring system. Right now, though, if you are interested and you want to sign up your property you’re probably getting in at this point,” Springer said. “There are certain focus areas of the state where they give you bonus points, for around urban zones where there is not much public hunting access for example. If you have CRP contracts active on your property that is more bonus points. Right now that is all moot because they haven’t reached the acreage cap yet and it is not competitive yet.”

OLHAP properties cannot be government owned, but there are multiple land trusts already enrolled in the program. To participate, landowners are required to:• Post and maintain accurate signage according to the OLHAP agreement.
• Maintain or increase current wildlife habitat on enrolled lands and throughout the agreement period.
• Maintain ownership and control throughout the agreement period. 

“One landowner I talked to said it was nice because he doesn’t have to worry about disputes between hunters on the land. The permit system really limits the pressure and he knows who to expect each day when he gets the email. So far it has been a pretty positive thing,” Springer said. “If you look at the map of the properties there are a lot of gaps within the state. Northwest Ohio has a pretty large number of these properties signed up and Southeast Ohio has a pretty decent amount. Central and Southwest Ohio are lacking areas. They want to get properties throughout the state to attract hunters without access to private property on their own, to give them more access without the drive across the state.”    

Dave Kohler with the Division of Wildlife (David.Kohler@dnr.ohio.gov, 614-265-6907) is running the OLHAP program and each district in the state has a local OLHAP contact as well. There is much more information on the program available at ohiodnr.gov/wps/portal/gov/odnr/buy-and-apply/hunting-fishing-boating/hunting-resources/ohio-landowner-hunter-access.  

For more information in each of Ohio’s OLHAP districts contact District 1: Jordan Phillips, 614-902-4196, jordan.phillips@dnr.ohio.gov; District 2: Justin Harrington, 419-429-8361, justin.harrington@dnr.ohio.gov; District 3: Geoff Westerfield, 330-245-3027, geoffrey.westerfield@dnr.ohio.gov; District 4: Chris Smith, 740-589-9951, chris.smith@dnr.ohio.gov; District 5: Caleb Shields, 937-347-0926, caleb.shields@dnr.ohio.gov.

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