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 recreation 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.
Help us celebrate the possibilities inherent in the idea that private lands can benefit all hunters, anglers, and wildlife. Urge your lawmakers to support legislation to enhance VPA-HIP in the next Farm Bill.
And learn more about 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. Our three-part blog series can be found here.
If you would like to donate to the Jim Range Conservation Fund, please click here.