Today, Representatives Dr. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), Glenn Thompson (R-Penn.), Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) introduced new bipartisan legislation to reauthorize and expand the popular Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program—the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s signature program for incentivizing private landowners to open their property for public hunting and fishing access. Identical legislation was introduced in the Senate in December 2017.
“As an avid outdoorsman and conservationist, I’m proud to introduce the Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act, a program that expands hunting and fishing access in Kansas and across the country,” says Rep. Marshall. “Our state’s Walk-In Access Program already helps landowners voluntarily open up thousands of acres for the public to enjoy, and enhancing the federal support for access and conservation of private lands will undoubtedly help carry those benefits to more Americans.”
This isn’t just good for sportsmen and women—VPA funds give farmers and ranchers more options for their business plans, and access opportunities draw tourism spending to rural communities.
“Our Voluntary Access Program not only provides essential access for Illinois hunters and anglers, but it also strengthens our local economy,” says Rep. Bustos. “Enhancing the program will boost this investment in the local businesses where sportsmen and women buy their gear, grab their coffee, and gas up their trucks. It’s an investment in the next generation of hunters and anglers, as well.”
States like Illinois, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Michigan use VPA funds to support walk-in access in a number of ways: by compensating landowners for opening their lands, posting signs on the property and publishing the location of access points in brochures and online, improving habitat, repairing roads and fences, patrolling access points for poachers, and sometimes covering the costs of liability insurance for landowners, in case someone gets hurt on their property.
East of the Mississippi, where some states are 99 percent privately owned, this is critical access that might mean the difference between taking a kid on his or her first hunt and not passing the tradition on at all.
“Funds from this program have grown Pennsylvania’s existing Hunter Access Program, providing more places for parents to teach their children about an important American tradition,” says Rep. Thompson. “Sportsmen and women on the east coast deserve to enjoy convenient access to the outdoors, even in states that are mostly private land, and this bill will support the landowners who want to help provide it.”
“Hunting and fishing are part of Michigan’s culture and heritage, and continuing to expand sportsmen’s access and opportunity is important to continuing these rich traditions,” says Rep. Dingell.
Members of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees are currently drafting the 2018 Farm Bill for introduction this spring. Language from the VPA-HIP bills in both chambers would hopefully be rolled into that legislation, and with broad bipartisan support, reauthorization of the program is not likely to be contentious, though funding levels will be up for debate.
“If we have any hope of growing the next generation of sportsmen and women to sustain these traditions, we need quality places to hunt and fish all across the country, not just in states that look like Montana,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Enhancing the voluntary public access incentives in the Farm Bill has long been a part of TRCP’s mission and we’re proud to see lawmakers on both sides of the aisle embrace this solution.”