Will ‘Open Fields’ be coming to Wisconsin soon?

Washington – The likelihood of an expanded nationwide hunter
access program took a step forward earlier this month when the USDA
announced that states like Wisconsin could apply for start-up
funding for such an undertaking.

States with new or existing access programs would be eligible for
funding from a pot that could include up to $50 million. The 2008
Farm Bill included “Open Fields” language. USDA Secretary Tom
Vilsack recently announced the start of the grants program that
“will not only help achieve conservation goals, but also increase
opportunities for hunting, fishing, and other … 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 some form of public access
programs for hunting, fishing, and other related activities,
according to the USDA.

Wisconsin has a limited program that leases about 10,000 acres per
year in Rock and Green counties, according to DNR lawyer Tim
Andryk, who is aware of the southern Wisconsin lease program
because he makes use of that acreage every fall.

The concept of an expanded walk-in access program has long
intrigued state leaders and hunters.

“We used to have more leased hunting land all over the state, and
there probably is some other leased land out there that I’m not
aware of, but Rock County wildlife technician Brian Buenzow leases
more than 10,000 acres down here and he has probably been doing
that for more than 10 or 12 years,” Andryk said. “But we could find
more (land to lease for public hunting) if there is money out there
for that purpose. The question is how much money could we get and
what are the requirements for getting that federal funding.”

DNR Bureau of Wildlife Management Director Tom Hauge shares some of
those thoughts.

“Providing public access and improving habitat at the same time
sounds like a good idea and we’re going to try to take advantage of
it,” Hauge said. “Now that the (Open Fields) rules are out we’re
trying to understand what the sideboards are. I understand that
there will be sessions for states to learn more details about the
program, then we will submit a proposal for Wisconsin by the Aug.
23 deadline. That’s kind of a tight turnaround, but we’ll get it
done.

“We’ve had this program on our radar screen ever since it was
announced as part of the most recent Farm Bill,” Hauge said.

Andryk said he wouldn’t be surprised if the DNR can find a
convenient way to augment the program that Buenzow has been
maintaining almost on his own the past few years.

“Brian has the largest leased land hunting program left in the
state because he takes a strong personal interest in it. He knows
the landowners well and he has gotten groups like Pheasants Forever
to donate to it,” Andryk said.

The land leased by Buenzow on behalf of state hunters is used
primarily for pheasant hunting and other small-game hunting, but
some parcels are open to deer hunting, as well.

Awards will be announced early in September, but that likely will
be followed by more paperwork, and a time lag before the state has
money in hand.

In the meantime, conservation groups are going to see if there is a
way for the groups to assist the DNR and landowners. Wisconsin
Ruffed Grouse Society biologist Gary Zimmer, of Laona, said RGS’s
Dan Dessecker has ben working at the federal level to track the
Open Field program through to last week’s announcement by
Vilsack.

Dessecker was not available for comment last week, but Zimmer said
he knows Dessecker plans to have RGS involved in getting the
program going in Wisconsin and other states.

Pheasants Forever’s Anthony Hauck said hunting access is always a
big deal, “but habitat is always a key, so if we can tie the two
together – habitat and access – that would be a big boost.”

Hauck said Pheasants Forever also will have staff members working
with state agencies and landowners to put Open Fields money to
work.

Whether or not the state receives funding is the first matter at
hand. And since it’s a competitive process, receipt of federal
funding is far from guaranteed.

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

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 be implemented or the current
program expanded, enrolling interested landowners likely would be
left to technicians who already work to enroll landowners in Farm
Bill conservation programs.

Some have questioned whether or not a walk-in program beyond
Buenzow’s effort 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.

Open Fields nationwide

The USDA announcement came on the heals 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’s 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 about $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 lined up to praise 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.

“Any way to turn around the trend of declining numbers of hunters
is also good news for conservation,” Dr. Scott Stephens, DU
director of conservation planning, said in a press release.

Like Vilsack, Stephens also stressed the economic importance of
hunter access in rural America.

“Hunters bring a big boost to local communities each fall,”
Stephens said. “Landowners who receive the incentives will also
have the money to invest locally.”

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 in a press statement.

Editor Dean Bortz contributed to this report.

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