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By Brad Trumbo
Among the top “barriers to entry” for hunters is the basic need for a place to go. In the western US, large tracts of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service, and states and tribes are available to the public, but this is not the case everywhere. For example, Illinois is one of the top five most populous states but is comprised of 96 percent private lands. Therefore, public access to private lands plays a critical role in hunter opportunities nationwide.
Outdoor recreation is big business, contributing $778 billion to the US economy every year1, and firearms and ammunition sales have contributed over $16 billion in conservation funds through the Pittman-Robertson Act. Ensuring the American public is afforded hunting opportunities supports a cornerstone of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, which is why incentivizing public access to private lands was introduced into the Farm Bill as “Open Fields” back in 2008.
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In 2018, the Farm Bill authorized what is now called the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP), which provides grants to states and tribes to implement walk-in access programs. Congress stepped up its investment in VPA-HIP, providing $50 million via the 2018 Farm Bill1.
In September 2019, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) announced VPA-HIP funding opportunities to state and tribal governments. States and tribes were eligible to receive up to $3 million in federal dollars to be leveraged with partner funds for the expansion of recreational access on private lands. In March 2020, the NRCS announced nearly $49 million in VPA-HIP awards1.
What makes VPA-HIP incentives more attractive is that they can be realized in addition to other Farm Bill programs like wetlands enrolled in the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and the Conservation Reserve Program. Furthermore, the VPA-HIP program allows the states to assume legal liability for the public accessing enrolled lands. But the VPA-HIP program benefits may soon increase dramatically.
In April, new legislation called the Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act of 2023 was introduced by Senators Steve Daines, Michael Bennet, and Roger Marshall to strengthen VPA-HIP by tripling its funding from $50 million to $150 million over the next five years. This increased investment was among the recommendations made by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group i10 its “Hunter and Angler Priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill” report that was released earlier this year3,.
To date, the VPA-HIP program has opened nearly one million private acres to public hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation. View the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s “Accessible Private Lands3” report for details, and imagine what tripling the program’s funding could do for hunter and angler opportunity.
1. REI-VPA-HIP-Report_FINAL-11-3-2020.pdf (trcp.org)
2. Firearm Industry Surpasses $16 Billion in Pittman-Robertson Excise Tax Contributions for Conservation • NSSF
4. AWWG-2023-FB-Platform_2-15-23.pdf (trcp.org)