Trump’s Pick for Interior is the Best Cabinet Nominee for Sportsmen, So Far
Congressman Ryan Zinke has been solid on public lands and outdoor recreation
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership affirms that America’s hunters and anglers can be optimistic about the management of public lands and sportsmen’s access under President-elect Trump’s pick for Secretary of the Interior. After days of rumors, the transition team confirmed Trump’s intent to nominate U.S. Congressman Ryan Zinke in a statement today.
“Zinke is someone we can work with,” says Whit Fosburgh, TRCP’s president and CEO. “He’s shown the courage to buck his own party on the issue of selling or transferring public lands that provide 72 percent of Western sportsmen with access to great hunting and fishing. He’s a lifelong outdoorsman, who we’ve found to be receptive to sportsmen’s interests in Montana and D.C. We won’t agree with him on everything, but we think he’s someone who will listen and has the right instincts.”
In June, Zinke was the only member of the House Natural Resources Committee to cross party lines and vote against a bill that would allow states to acquire up to two million acres of national forest lands to be managed primarily for timber production, locking Americans out of our public lands. Later this summer, he resigned as a delegate to the Republican nominating convention because of the party’s position on the transfer of federal public lands to the states. Zinke is also in favor of full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses revenues from offshore oil and gas production to conserve important natural resources and open public access.
The Secretary of the Interior oversees management of public lands, minerals, and endangered species. Senior officials nominated to lead other Cabinet departments will be just as critical to the future of hunting and fishing.
“The Secretary of Agriculture is another leadership position that will drive habitat and access improvements in America through Farm Bill programs, and we simply cannot have someone in that seat who is hostile to conservation,” says Fosburgh.
When One Program Opens Access and Improves Habitat, Everyone Wins
We dig into the across-the-board benefits of a key Farm Bill conservation program on private lands
For every walk-in access sign there are numerous forces at play, granting you permission to use the land and ensuring quality habitat for critters. On private acres, your experience might be thanks in part to Farm Bill conservation programs. One in particular, the Volunteer Public Access and Habitat Improvement Program, provides $40 million specifically to support quality hunting and fishing access on private land—but its benefits don’t stop there.
Private land access helps keeps the sport alive.
Westerners are flush with public lands, while the rest of the nation’s sportsmen and women make do with smaller, isolated public patches that may not be close to home. Some of the non-Westerners among us may travel to Big Sky Country once a year, but access can be a significant barrier for beginning hunters and anglers or anyone who doesn’t have a big-ticket trip with out-of-state license fees in his or her budget.
@TheTRCP Hunting has gotten too expensive for an average huntress on her own…
As its name suggests, VPA-HIP has two primary goals: securing public access and improving habitat. Authorized and funded in the 2008 Farm Bill and renewed in the 2014 Farm Bill, VPA-HIP helps states incentivize landowners to implement conservation-minded practices, such as clearing a forest understory of invasive plant species or creating stream buffers. In exchange, landowners allows the public to hunt, fish, trap, and observe wildlife on their property.
In short, VPA-HIP invests money in states like Illinois, Nebraska, Connecticut, and South Dakota—often in parts of the country where public lands are relatively scarce—to help give more Americans opportunities to hunt and fish.
Local economies get a boost.
Last month, TRCP’s government affairs director Steve Kline spent some time chasing upland birds on private land in eastern Montana, and he’ll be the first to tell you that hunting season supports rural economies. At this time of year, even in otherwise sleepy towns, you’ll see bustling restaurants, packed sporting goods stores, and busy streets—and the economy is better for it.
The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) calculated the actual economic impact in a 2012 study and found that for the $9.1 million invested into VPA-HIP in 2011, 322 jobs were created and $18.1 million in gear- and travel-related spending was associated with hunters accessing newly enrolled private lands. That’s double the investment!
And that figure only covers direct spending. The economic boost echoes down the entire supply chain with more production, jobs, and higher profits, which stimulates even more spending. The report calculates that once those amplifying effects are taken into account, the return on investment for VPA-HIP funds was actually more than $73 million in a single year.
This isn’t just free money.
A common point of criticism for incentive programs like VPA-HIP is that the government shouldn’t give handouts to the agriculture industry. However, this money isn’t free. VPA-HIP isn’t a charity, it’s a payment for services rendered to wildlife and the public. Landowners invest funds into habitat improvements, which critters need to survive. Instead of laying crops all the way up to a stream’s edge, for example, VPA-HIP dollars help a landowner create buffers to keep water clean so fish and waterfowl can thrive. After all, access is basically worthless without quality habitat.
Furthermore, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)—the branch of the USDA that governs VPA-HIP—is highly selective when it comes to choosing grant recipients. NRCS prioritizes funding for state and tribal applications that maximize acreage, ensure appropriate wildlife habitat, and are likely to receive matches from other funding sources. States that receive grants are then responsible for deciding which landowners may enroll, and they are similarly selective. Wisconsin, for example, prioritizes larger properties with more usable cover, as well as lands that are in close proximity to existing public hunting or fishing grounds. This kind of scrutiny ensures that every dollar invested creates the largest possible benefit to the public and to wildlife.
Everybody’s a winner!
Sometimes public lands and agricultural lands are viewed as polar opposites fighting for a share of resources in a no-sum game. But when it comes to VPA-HIP, that paradigm is shattered. When landowners and agricultural producers transform acres into valuable wildlife habitat, they’re improving conditions for the critters we love to pursue, while receiving compensation and technical assistance. It’s important to their business plans because, often, the land that is least productive for crop production is the most valuable for wildlife anyway. On top of all that, the public gains access to otherwise closed-off lands. That means more places for moms and dads to take their kids hunting or fishing, more kids growing up loving the outdoors, and more hearts beating for conservation far into the future.
A Farm Bill Program Filling Bag Limits and Bar Stools in Montana
Sleepy towns awaken across Big Sky Country as hunters flood in to take advantage of private land access opportunities
I willingly endure a 60-mile daily commute from my home on Maryland’s rural Eastern Shore to downtown Washington, D.C., in order to raise my family amidst the farm fields and tidewaters of Chesapeake Bay country and to wake up on bitter winter weekends just eight miles from my duck blind and deer stand. My love of the slower pace of rural places, and my affinity for the cackle of pheasants, also brings me to the northeast corner of Montana each fall, when good friends converge on the Eastern Hi-Line with a few great bird dogs.
Perched on the prairies, this isn’t the blanket of national public lands some think of when Montana comes to mind. This is country dominated by small grains and big expanses of private lands grazing, where a breeze blowing less than 20 miles per hour barely registers with the locals.
It is a hard place to scratch out a living. Abandoned homesteads are eerie reminders that this is a place where rail cars and cattle far outnumber people. But, when we pull over to prepare a push through a particularly promising cattail slough or a birdy-looking Russian olive windbreak, we never fail to see pickup trucks with blaze-orange hats on the dash cruise by us on the gravel section roads. The Main Street diners sling bacon and black coffee as fast as they can in the morning, and there’s not an open barstool to be found in the evenings.
Hunting season brings a lot of activity to these otherwise quiet locales, the kind of places one hesitates to call ‘towns’—they are more like places where the speed limit changes. But they come to life as bird hunters with open wallets come from across the country to walk the coulees and draws. You get the sense that, in an economic setting otherwise completely dominated by agriculture of one form or another, hunting season represents a financial bright spot for businesses of all kinds, from the aforementioned bars and restaurants to hardware stores, sporting goods stores, motels, grocers, and gas stations. What may be a week-long vacation for some out-of-town hunter helps to smooth the fiscal bumps inherent in any small town business plan.
This economic windfall depends, almost entirely, on private acres. I hunted for four full days, harvesting pheasants, sharptail grouse, and Hungarian partridge, and never stepped foot on a publicly-owned acre. But thanks to Montana’s fantastic Block Management Program and their Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program, both made possible in part by the federal Farm Bill’s Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP), high quality and productive private acres beckon the upland hunter. These programs—and programs like them all over the country—provide incentives to willing landowners to make their farms and ranches accessible to hunters, and they represent a kind of critical infrastructure for local economies. These programs are the fuel that keeps the economic engine of rural America humming.
Just as importantly, VPA-HIP (and the state programs it supports) help landowners to maintain or restore habitat on their property. It wouldn’t be much of a hunting season without something to hunt, and thanks to the Farm Bill’s investment in private lands conservation our dogs were able to scare up plenty of birds.
We’re celebrating VPA-HIP at a critical time. This year’s presidential election illustrated clearly how disconnected rural Americans feel from the rest of the nation, and revealed the worry that a huge segment of our country possesses about their future economic stability. We should let the full motels and packed diners of the Montana prairies during hunting season illustrate that the next chapter of America’s rural revalorization should start with outdoor recreation.
Public Lands Are Where We Can All Heal, Hope, and Harvest
At a critical time for America’s public lands, hunters and anglers—the country’s original conservationists—are asking everyone who enjoys outdoor recreation: Will you go outside with us?
It’s safe to say that, as Americans, we’ve been through a lot in this election cycle. From the 24-7 media circus to the contention between the two candidates, no one would blame you for feeling overstimulated or just plain exhausted.
Sounds like it’s time to go outside.
The outdoors have a true healing effect on the mind and body, and the hunting and fishing sports, especially, have an ability to transport. Whether you’re brought back to your earliest memories of watching the woods wake up at dawn or so lost in listening for the footfall of approaching game that you’ve completely forgotten your worries, the natural world provides us with serenity. Out there, we are part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s where we are challenged, and as we find ourselves capable, we feel validated.
That’s why the TRCP is proud to join a growing coalition of more than 400 groups who, inspired by outdoor retailer REI’s movement to #OptOutside the day after Thanksgiving, are finding unity and purpose in the outdoors.
As we come back together as a nation, the question of where we go to spend time outside is an important one. The abundance of public lands in our country, and the right to access them for recreation, makes the U.S. unique in all the world. All Americans are richer for being able to share in their ownership. And the landscapes that are appealing to hunters, anglers, hikers, bikers, climbers, and American families drive spending and support jobs in adjacent communities. Still, a movement to offload or privatize national public lands continues to find traction in Western states and on Capitol Hill.
But, to anyone else who heads outside to escape, heal, sweat, bond, or breathe a little deeper, I’d like to say to YOU that we can’t do this alone.
For every benefit that public lands provide, there’s an interest group ready to seize upon the opportunity. Even within our broader outdoor recreation community, there’s admittedly some mistrust between niches—those who ride versus those who run, those who watch wildlife versus those who harvest. With so much at stake, we cannot allow these unspoken hierarchies to divide us—it weakens the base of support that is absolutely critical to America’s public lands legacy.
Speaking for hunters and anglers, I hope that the rest of #OptOutside nation—at more than 1.3 million strong—will unite with us in the outdoors, celebrate the camo AND the climbers that you see in your social feeds, and check politics at the trailhead. If we can’t come together, we may just find ourselves united outside a locked gate.
In a Divided Nation, This Conservation Program Connects Sportsmen to Critical Access on Private Lands
The story of an important conservation program, one that helps to supply critical public access in states with mostly private land, started right here at the TRCP
While American sportsmen and women are in the midst of an important fight for our national public lands out West and across the country, many hunters and anglers have a completely different access challenge. Leasing or buying land, or knocking on doors to gain permission to cross, hunt, or fish someone else’s private land, are some of the only options in states with very few public acres. That’s why we’re proud to work on strengthening conservation and access programs, many funded by the Farm Bill, that help level the playing field by bringing public access to private-lands states. In fact, TRCP’s co-founder, the charismatic Jim Range, was one of the creative minds behind a voluntary public access program that continues to change the game.
Once commonly known as “open fields,” the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP) was created to expand hunting and fishing opportunities across our nation by encouraging landowners and operators of privately held farms, ranches, and forest lands to not only provide public access, but also to conserve valuable habitat. In the early days of the TRCP, Range saw that the need for access and quality habitat go hand in hand.
Range always wanted to share our great outdoor heritage with others, and he was known for saying that we need to protect the things we love, because nobody else is going to do it. In 2007, he was instrumental in drafting legislation with our conservation partners in the Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group—groups like Pheasants Forever and the Association of the Fish and Wildlife Agencies—to establish VPA-HIP and open new sporting access that would allow our traditions to continue. Former Senator Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), former Congressman Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), and Senators Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) sponsored the VPA-HIP legislation and were influential in adding the provision in the 2008 and 2014 farm bills. From 2008 to 2012, the Farm Bill made $50 million in grants available to states and tribes, and the 2014 Farm Bill authorized another $40 million to be granted through 2018. All told, 29 states have been able to open public access to private lands and waters since the creation of this program.
Unfortunately, Range passed away in 2009 after a fight with kidney cancer, and he didn’t get to see many of the successes for sportsmen’s access and fish and wildlife habitat, nor the ripple effects on the outdoor recreation economy, that he helped to make possible. For instance, in just the first year after VPA-HIP was created, the national outdoor economy grew by $41.7 million and supported over 300 new hunting- and fishing-related jobs. And in 2011, Iowa generated an additional $1.82 in revenue for every dollar invested into the Iowa Habitat and Access Program (IHAP). This is important to celebrate as a win for sportsmen, landowners, and the rural economy as we look ahead to the 2018 Farm Bill, especially since conservation and access are very much on the line.
Range used to quote former Senator Howard Baker when he told the staff to ration our good ideas. There will be no shortage of ideas about how to make the most of the conservation funding and incentive programs baked into the next Farm Bill, but we think that voluntary public access, the “open fields” of Range’s imagination, is still a very good one.
Celebrate with us the possibilities inherent in this idea that private lands can benefit all hunters, anglers, and the species we love to pursue. This month, we’ll look at the merits of VPA-HIP and why it has been a keystone effort for the TRCP since the organization’s inception, instilling everything we stand for—access, quality fishing and hunting habitat, and economic productivity.