Capital Press: Senators call to renew voluntary access program in 2018 Farm Bill

Two U.S. senators are proposing to reauthorize a grant program in the 2018 Farm Bill that compensates landowners who open their property to public access.

Sens. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., introduced legislation Monday to renew the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, which was met with cheers from sportsmen’s groups.

Steve Kline, director of government relations for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership in Washington, D.C., said the VPA-HIP is the only federal program aimed at enhancing access to private lands for hunters and anglers.

“One of the reasons people stop hunting and fishing is lack of public access,” Kline said. “This is really a top tier priority for sportsmen.”

The program awarded $20 million to 15 states in 2015, including $1.5 million to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Isaac Sanders, access and habitat coordinator with ODFW, said a big portion of that money went toward maintaining access on 250,000 acres in northeast Oregon owned by Hancock Forest Management.

The remainder of the money will go toward a similar effort with Hancock Forest Management on 190,000 acres in the Stott Mountain Wildlife Management Unit between Salem and Newport, Sanders said. ODFW essentially pays the company $1 per acre for public access to the timberlands that have prime habitat for deer and elk.

“This is, if you will, a public option,” Sanders said. “They’re still getting a fee, but now it’s open to the public.”

The legislation introduced by Daines and Bennet calls for a sizable increase in program funding to $150 million from 2019 through 2023. Kline said demand for the VPA-HIP has increased, and revenue generated by sportsmen produces billions of dollars annual while helping keep rural communities afloat.

“You go into some of these smaller towns, and but for outdoor recreation some of these places would be pretty dead,” Kline said. “This is as close to a consensus priority as we’re going to get.” 

The beauty of the program, Kline added, is states can administer the funds however they like. In Iowa, for example, it is used as a cost-share for landowners to enroll less desirable farmland into the Conservation Reserve Program.

In Oregon, it is used more as a direct financial incentive to the landowner. Sanders said the ODFW Access and Habitat Management Program is supported primarily through hunting and fishing licenses, and the VPA-HIP provides a substantial boost to their budget.

“It’s been incredibly beneficial for the state,” Sanders said. “I don’t know that we would have been able to maintain access in northeast Oregon without assistance from that federal grant.”

The bill is drawing support from 32 sportsmen’s groups, including the National Rifle Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Trout Unlimited.

Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, said opening public access creates a ripple effect in rural economies.

“Landowners and sportsmen see a benefit, bur more access to healthier fish and wildlife habitat also drives outdoor recreation spending across small communities, from gas stations and diners to motels and sporting goods stores,” Vincent said in a statement.