Wilderness Unlimited: Private Property for the Public

by Mike Moropoulos

It was in pre-dawn darkness, very foggy, and I was wet, cold, and cramped. It was at that precise moment that I remembered what I didn't like about duck and goose hunting.

But that memory faded quickly when there was a familiar sound emanating from somewhere in the fog-the wing-beats of a small bunch of teal that buzzed in and out of sight at first light. Misses all the way around. Then I realized why being so miserable was worth it all. And the 900 miles we drove up and back to hunt on a club near Williams was something I'd do again. Just watching thousands of geese flying in their classic “V's” was worth the trip.

You may recall I recently wrote that while I belong to Ducks Unlimited, I hadn't shot a duck in several years. I can't say that anymore.

But I'm not writing about the hunt. A personal friend from our outdoor writers association invited me to join him for a duck and pheasant hunt at one of his clubs an hour north of Sacramento. One of his clubs? Rick Copeland is president of Wilderness Unlimited (W.U.) an organization that manages and controls over 100 private outdoor recreational facilities. If you follow my column, you know that I seldom offer endorsements unless I feel they will be of great value to our readers. I am endorsing Wilderness Unlimited.

In an oversimplification, this is how it works. W.U. investigates and leases private properties, then offers to the public annual memberships which allow the member and immediate family access to any of these properties throughout the entire year.

The activities include hunting, fishing, diving, wildlife viewing, camping, photography, and RV'ing. Bur most significantly, interested persons should keep in mind that every activity is conducted on private land, in most cases behind lock and key, and on facilities where the number of visitors is limited.

Their holdings stretch from a few ranches in Oregon to the Mexico border, and vary in size from a 41,000-acre ranch in Mendocino County to duck clubs in El Centro and Niland.

I have been aware of W.U. and have even considered joining, but until this most recent trip I was unaware of the depth and sense of responsibility with which they operate.

I was surprised to learn that W.U. staff members, through a written application and personal interview, screen every applicant for membership. This process is intended to reassure both existing members and landowners that all visitors are aware of their responsibilities when accessing W.U. property.

In fact, members are required to call the office and make reservations, then sign in and sign out for every visit. In this way, landowners know exactly who is visiting their property and what fish or game was taken during the visit.

This reporting is essential. When W.U. contracts with a property owner, they agree to a determination of what the resources of that property and how their sustainability can be ensured. For example, they might reach conclusion that a take of 15 deer during the season is the maximum number that can be removed without damaging that particular resource. When that number is reached, the property will be closed for deer but might remain open to other activities.

They will also reach agreement on the daily number of member visits, thus ensuring that the property will not become crowded, a benefit to both members and owners.

The range of activities offered through membership is impressive and includes hunting activity for big game such as deer, wild boar, bear, and antelope, along with upland game species that include dove, quail, pigeons, turkey, pheasant and of course, waterfowl. Some of their fishing properties are located in prime trout and bass waters such as the Bidwell and La Marr Ranches with private waters on the Fall River. The Rockport Ranch near Ft. Bragg offers both rockfishing and abalone diving from a private beach.

Least we lose perspective, these properties-more than 100- can transcend fishing and hunting and offer some of the finest camping, wildlife viewing, photographing, and hiking in the state.

Considering that access to public lands is so limited, and that this is a 365 days per year opportunity to visit posted W.U. properties, I do not consider the fees unusually expensive. Figure in, what type of activity are you most interested in? How important is the privacy and security of visiting private property with others who have withstood the scrutiny of membership approval.

One other factor that should be considered is distance. More than half the W.U. properties are located north of the Bay Area, but they are making great strides in obtaining properties in the lower half of the state and are especially interested in Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo Counties.

Which brings me to another point. While members enjoy tremendous benefits, so too do the private landowners. W.U. will: (1) assume control and post properties for the landowner, patrol the land, and in many cases place a full-time caretaker, (2) ensure responsibility of members through their screening and reservation process; (3) carry an extensive liability insurance package; and (4) manage wildlife resources and consult with owners about agricultural programs that will benefit both the land and the wildlife.

Of course there is a fifth and very significant benefit in that W.U. compensates the owner through means of a lease fee. Obviously I am not a ranch owner so I cannot speak for them, but the fact that many ranchers have remained in the program for many years- some since its inception in 1987- is evidence of satisfaction.

Wilderness Unlimited is a family oriented club, the largest of its kind on the West Coast and is committed to “....Preserving quality sporting opportunities on America's shrinking private lands.” Their motto is: Conservation Through Proper Utilization.”

But don't take my word for it call W.U. at (510) 785-4868 or visit them on the Web at wildernessunlimited.com.