Governor Kristi Noem conflates Freedom™ with guns and hunting. But an essay by Iowa researcher and author Chris Jones gets me thinking about how much opportunity South Dakota offers people to exercise their cherished gun-hunting freedom.
Jones, who has appeared on this blog in discussions of the Iowa Republican carbon dioxide pipeline and the myth-making of the ag-industrial complex, is publishing The Swine Republic, a book compiling some of his best blog work. In one bookified blog post, Jones discusses the relative lack of public land in Iowa:
In his essay called “No Country For Old Men,” included in “Swine Republic,” Jones talks about hitting the road in a 35-year-old camper during the COVID-19 pandemic. He compared Iowa’s 3 percent of public land with that of Arkansas.
“Somehow this state (Arkansas), with 30% less GDP, 10% fewer people and 15% less area, is able to afford 10 times more public land than Iowa,” Jones writes.
“ … If you’ve been to an Iowa park any time during the pandemic, you’ve seen the situation here in Iowa is disgraceful. All summer long, campgrounds, boat launches, the picnic areas and trails were busier than ever. Getting a weekend campsite was nearly impossible at times.”
Iowa agricultural groups, including the Farm Bureau, have lobbied for legislation to make it harder for Iowans to donate their land for public use and conservation [Erin Jordan, “With ‘Swine Republic’ book, University of Iowa’s Chris Jones Continues to Stir the Pot,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, 2023.04.28].
Jones got me wondering: how does South Dakota rank in preserving public lands open to the public for recreation?
A Backcountry Chronicles post that appears to be a decade old lists the public land, state and federal, in each state that is open to hunting. According to the data compiled in that post, South Dakota has 2.38 million acres where folks with or without firearms can chase critters. That’s 4.9% of the state’s total land area, or roughly the equivalent of seven southeastern South Dakota counties (minus the asphalty/McMansiony Sioux Fallsy bits in Lincoln County) or, out west, all of Meade County and the upright chunk of the Pennington tomahawk:
2.38 million acres is a lot of room to roam, but 29 other states offer a greater percentage of their land for hunting, and 19 states—8 of them with less total land area than South Dakota, offer more acres of public land. The following table, edited from Backcountry Chronicles, lists states by percent of land open to hunting, from greatest to least.
|State||Total Land Acres (x1000)||USFS Acres (x1000)||BLM Acres (x1000)||State Owned Acres (x1000)||Total Land Open to Hunt (x1000)||% of State Open to Hunt||Acres Per Person to Hunt|
Even liberal places like Minnesota, New York, and California set aside more of their land for public use than South Dakota does.
And notice that, as in so many other affairs, the federal government subsidizes South Dakota’s mediocre ranking. 96.2% of the land in South Dakota open to hunting is owned and preserved by the federal government. The 3.8% of public land held by the state of South Dakota is the third-lowest state-held-public-land percentage in the country. Five states on the East Coast—New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Maryland—offer a greater percentage of their land for hunting and other public access without any U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management acres. Delaware also has none of that federally-owned hunting land, but it ties South Dakota with 4.9% of its land in state hands.
Of course, as Jones notes, public land isn’t as fun if its crowded. Backcountry Chronicles figures the amount of public land available to each person in each state. Based on 2010 population figures, South Dakota offers 2.9 acres of public hunting land per resident. That ties us with North Dakota for #12 in the nation. (For perspective, if we each stood in the center of a 2.9-acre circle, we’d be about 400 feet apart, close enough to sting each other with our shotgun blasts.)
But South Dakota doesn’t lead the nation on any of those metrics. In terms of keeping land open for hunting and other public enjoyment, South Dakota doesn’t offer as much wide open space as other states, and most of the geographical freedom we do offer is preserved by the federal government.