Open Fields may jump- start walk-in program

St. Paul – The likelihood of a hunter access program – a pilot
project in southwestern Minnesota – took a step forward last week
when the USDA announced states like Minnesota could apply for
start-up funding for such an undertaking.

States with existing programs also would be eligible for funding
from a pot that could include up to $50 million nationwide. The
2008 Farm Bill included “Open Fields” language. And last week USDA
Secretary Tom Vilsack announced commencement of the grants program
that “will not only help achieve conservation goals, but also
increase opportunities for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor
recreation by providing greater access to privately held lands for
wildlife-dependent recreation.”

During a media conference call, Vilsack said Open Fields, now
known as the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program,
would not only improve habitat and aid wildlife, but also stimulate
rural economies.

Twenty-six states currently have public access programs for
hunting, fishing, and other related activities, according to the
USDA.

Minnesota is not one of them, but the concept of a walk-in
access program has long intrigued state leaders and hunters. In
fact, seed money for a pilot program was included in an omnibus
bill that was vetoed last session by Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Officials
now say they hope federal funds will get the pilot off the ground
in 16 southwestern Minnesota counties.

However, “We’re unlikely to see anything in place this fall,”
said Dave Schad, Fish and Wildlife Division director for the
DNR.

That’s because state agencies and tribes – the only ones
eligible for the grants – have until Aug. 23 to submit them. Awards
will be announced early in September, but that likely will be
followed by more paperwork, and a time lag before the state
actually has money in hand.

Enrolling landowners in such a program, posting signs on land,
and other necessary measures couldn’t be completed in just a couple
weeks, according to Bill Penning, the DNR’s farmland wildlife
program leader.

Whether or not the state receives funding is the first matter at
hand. Based on the expected cost of the pilot project (a plan was
submitted as part of this year’s legislative proposal), Penning
said the state likely will apply for $1 million for each of the
next two years, though that amount is subject to change as state
officials prepare the VPA-HIP proposal.

And since it’s a competitive process, receipt of federal funding
is far from guaranteed.

However, Penning says he hopes the state’s demonstrated
dedication to public access grabs federal officials’ attention.

Most recently, the state – through Legacy funding – locked up
permanent access to 187,000 acres of mostly forested land in
northern Minnesota, for hunters and other users.

And through the years, perpetual easements – many in
southeastern Minnesota – have been secured along trout streams,
giving anglers an option aside from bridges, limited state access
points, and obliging landowners.

“We’ve demonstrated we’re already working on public access to
private lands,” Penning said.

Though the pilot walk-in program wouldn’t be created strictly
for land already enrolled in conservation programs, Schad said it’s
likely that’s where the focus would lie – land enrolled in CRP,
CREP, RIM, and others.

“We know these are high-quality habitats that have game
available to hunt,” he said.

The short-term nature of a two-year pilot program would make it
unfeasible to enroll land other than that already used for
conservation purposes, Penning added.

Should federal funding be made available for the state, and
should a pilot walk-in program be established, its future largely
would be determined by its success; those unknowns were what
continually kept such a program on the back burner, Penning
said.

“It’s difficult to charge hunters for an access program when you
don’t have one,” he said of attempting a walk-in start-up.

If the program looked promising following a two-year pilot, a
stable source – a legislative allocation or an additional fee
charged to hunters – would need to be established, absent
additional Farm Bill funding in 2012.

During last week’s tele-conference Vilsack said he hoped the
initiative’s success would be a springboard for follow-up action in
2012.

“We’d like to make the case to Congress as it considers the Farm
Bill in 2012 that this is the kind of thing we need to continue to
support even in these tough economic times,” he said.

Should a walk-in access program pilot be implemented in
Minnesota, Penning said enrolling interested landowners likely
would be left to technicians who already work to enroll landowners
in Farm Bill conservation programs; they’re part of a Farm Bill
Assistance Partnership (including the DNR, Board of Water and Soil
Resources, Pheasants Forever, Soil and Water Conservation
Districts, and local sportsmen’s clubs) and are available in 30
counties, most in the southwest, he said. The stated goal of the
pilot is to enroll 50,000 acres in two years. “Anything less would
drive administration costs unreasonably high and potentially
concentrate a large number of hunters on a small amount of land,
thus generating negative public feedback,” the DNR proposal
states.

Some have questioned whether or not a walk-in program would be
successful in the state; such plans have fared well to the west –
namely the Dakotas – but not so well to the east – Michigan, for
example. Neither Wisconsin nor Iowa have such programs.

Open Fields nationwide

The USDA announcement last week came on the heels of a report
released a day earlier that highlighted the importance of outdoor
recreation – specifically that on national forests and grasslands –
in the nation.

According to the report, released by the USDA Forest Service,
visitors spend $13 billion directly in those communities within 50
miles of the national forests and grasslands.

Nationwide, outdoors spending accounts for about $730 billion in
economic activity; hunting and fishing generate $200 billion.

The USDA has established a number of criteria by which funding
priorities for the latest $50 million program will be judged. The
objectives are to:

  • maximize participation by landowners;
  • ensure that land enrolled in the program has appropriate
    wildlife habitat;
  • provide incentive to strengthen wildlife habitat-improvement
    efforts on CREP land, if available;
  • supplement funding and services from other federal, state,
    tribal government or private resources provided in the form of cash
    or in-kind services;
  • provide information to the public about the location of public
    access land.

National conservation groups praised the USDA announcement.

Ducks Unlimited expects the Open Fields initiative could open
some 4 million acres of private land to public hunting and fishing.
That group also suggests states with public access and walk-in
programs have significantly smaller hunter decline numbers than
those without.

Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt
Conservation Partnership, called Open Fields a “flagship issue” for
the group.

“Today’s announcement by the federal government is an
unqualified victory for fish and wildlife conservation and our
hunting and fishing traditions,” he said.

Categories: Hunting News

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