LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Jay Wright owns 4,000 acres in St. Francis and Crittenden counties in Arkansas that he leases out for hunting. Duck and quail hunters converge on his farm each November with signed agreements or leases to abide by the Wright's rules.

"I have an attorney go over my contracts, and I'm a limited liability company, too," says Wright, who has practiced this alternative form of agriculture for five years.

Wright used to produce rice, soybeans and wheat. But with several years of drought and low market prices, he ventured into what he called more profitable areas — hunting leases.

"I had been farming since 1986, and finally realized that row crops weren't paying off," Wright says. "I had to do something and issuing leases has been more profitable, especially in the past two years."

Becky McPeake, wildlife specialist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, says landowners who lease property for wildlife tourism or hunting should follow Wright's example — hire an attorney to read contracts and agreements — before anyone ventures onto their land.

Hunting, fishing and nature tourism are popular recreational pastimes in Arkansas. A 2001 national survey shows that almost one-third of Arkansans hunted, and more than half participated in wildlife-watching activities.

In 2001, hunters spent $517 million in Arkansas, of which 20 percent came from non-residents. On average, hunters spent $1,179 per hunter and an average of $25 per day. Those who enjoy watching wildlife spent $244 million, with only 4 percent from non-residents. Wildlife-watchers spent an average of $290 per participant in Arkansas.

"These expenditures by hunters and wildlife watchers are, or could be, income opportunities for some farmers and landowners," McPeake says. "However, the legal aspects can be a daunting barrier for those considering these types of income opportunities on their land."

The Arkansas recreational use statutes take some liability-pressure off landowners, however, the statues offer only limited protection, particularly when a landowner benefits financially. The effort taken to set up a sound lease agreement from the start and the efforts to monitor compliance with those leases will avert potential problems later.

For hunters and wildlife watchers, a lease agreement offers a place to be outdoors with friends and family, or an escape from crowded conditions on public lands. For landowners, a wildlife lease can help offset increasing agriculture production costs and pay property taxes.

Those who sign a wildlife lease have a vested interest in monitoring the property and reducing unwanted trespassers.

"In today's world, leasing land based on a handshake agreement is asking for trouble," she says. "Miscommunication between the user and the landowner, or an accident on the property, could result in a lawsuit."

Nationally, wildlife professionals debate the advantages and disadvantages of leases for the general good of wildlife.

McPeake says wildlife has traditionally been a by-product of agriculture and forestry. Wildlife habitat had no monetary value compared to a rice field or timber stand. "Some biologists believe that by adding value to wildlife habitat, more landowners are willing to improve habitat because of lease agreements," she says.

"However, others argue that leasing changes our perspective of wildlife, that wildlife will no longer be a free resource for everyone to enjoy. They argue that as leases grow in number, only the wealthy will have the opportunity to view, hunt and enjoy wildlife on private lands."

Despite these arguments, lease agreements can provide access to hunters and provide landowners with a source of supplemental income; however, it can also be a source of liability if not approached properly.

To learn more about hunting leases, contact McPeake at 501-671-2285 or Janie Hipp, natural resources public policy specialist, at 479-575-6935. Wright can be reached at 870-636-2072.

An Arkansas Extension fact sheet that addresses hunting leases and the liability issues associated with hunting leases will be available soon, and can be picked up at Arkansas county Extension offices or found on the internet at www.uaex.edu.

Shareese Kondo is an Extension communications specialist with the University of Arkansas.