TRCP Releases Report on Recreation Opportunity on Private Lands
Report highlights access projects in 15 states and success of the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program
(Washington D.C.)—The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership today released a report on the wide-ranging recreational opportunities that are available on private land thanks to the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program.
The report features projects in 15 states across the United States, highlighting success stories of how VPA-HIP has improved hunting, fishing, bird watching, camping, and other outdoor recreation activities. REI Co-op provided funding for the report.
“This report showcases the best of the best when it comes to expanding opportunity for all Americans to access our outdoors,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “This report looks at the innovative ways in which the Program is being used to boost access across the country, particularly in states where a shortage of public access to wildlife-dependent recreation is reaching crisis proportions.”
“This report helps to highlight the creative ways landowners and agencies are working together to increase access to the outdoors across America,” said Taldi Harrison, Government Affairs Manager, REI Co-op. “Increased access to outdoor recreation on private lands also helps boost the outdoor recreation economy that supports rural jobs across America.”
Championed by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s founder, Jim Range, VPA- HIP helps states to create innovative ways of incentivizing private landowners to open their lands to the public for wildlife-dependent recreation.
Established and funded through the 2008, 2014, and 2018 Farm Bills, VPA-HIP makes grants to states and tribes to increase public access to private lands for hunting, fishing, and other forms of outdoor recreation. VPA-HIP funding is also utilized to provide technical resources and assistance to landowners for wildlife habitat improvement and enhancement projects. The program also allows states to assume liability, alleviating a roadblock for many landowners to open their lands to the public.
“As Congress eyes the next Farm Bill, it’s imperative that they increase investment in Farm Bill conservation programs,” said Andrew Earl, Director of Private Lands Conservation at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “VPA-HIP is the single best federal tool for increasing recreational access on private lands, and this report shows its proven track record across the U.S.”
This World Water Week, there seems to be even more at stake for clean water and fish habitat
Today marks the end of World Water Week, a global event created to raise the profile of water resource challenges in every corner of our planet. We’re also nearing the end of a summer that promises to be memorable, if not infamous, for years to come. It’s a good opportunity for all sportsmen and women to stand together on the shore, look toward the horizon, and take stock of where we are in our efforts to improve water resources and fish habitat for future generations.
Here are six water issues we’re watching as the next season unfolds.
Pebble Mine Poised to Fail?
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced this week that it will not permit the Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska as it is currently proposed. The Corps released its decision finding the project “could have substantial environmental impacts within the unique Bristol Bay watershed.” We’ll be watching to see if the EPA follows suit to stop the Pebble Mine once and for all. There is no safe way to advance this project and preserve the region’s clean water and outdoor recreation economy.
A Watering Down of the Clean Water Act
First, we fought tooth and nail to keep the EPA from eliminating Clean Water Act protections for 50 percent of the nation’s stream miles and 40 percent of wetlands, like the prairie potholes of the Upper Midwest. During that debate, proponents of the administration’s new rule governing which waters are covered by the Act argued that the states could use their authority to protect the headwaters and wetlands that the federal government would no longer regulate.
Now, the EPA has quietly changed another Clean Water Act rule that allows states to do just that. What is noteworthy from an administration that usually champions states’ rights is how this rule removes state power—not to mention the blow that it deals to fish and waterfowl habitat. We’ll be monitoring the legal challenges to this rulemaking and will continue to stand with partners to oppose the dismantling of bedrock conservation laws.
What’s Next for the Boundary Waters
In a story that has echoes of the Pebble Mine saga, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been waffling on its commitment to a thorough environmental review of proposed copper-nickel mining upstream of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Last fall, we partnered with Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters in questioning whether Secretary Perdue would fulfill promises made at his Senate confirmation hearing and allow the science to show that this is no place for a mine. We’ll be closely tracking legislation that has been proposed to permanently protect the incredible habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities provided by these public lands.
This Shrinking Farm Bill Program’s Impact on Stream Buffers
The Conservation Reserve Program may be one of the Farm Bill’s most popular and well-known conservation initiatives, but troubling changes to how the program is administered has slowed or prevented enrollment—leaving would-be conservation acres on the table. One of the ways that CRP benefits fish and wildlife habitat is by incentivizing landowners to create stream buffers that help keep toxic runoff out of our waterways. The TRCP is actively engaged with the Farm Service Agency to push for updates that will help max out CRP acres and put more conservation on the ground.
Reducing the Dead Zone in Chesapeake Bay
Though Pennsylvanians may need to sit in their fair share of traffic to reach the striper blitzes of the Chesapeake Bay, they are critical to lessening the nutrient load that makes its way downstream, threatening fish, wildlife, and water quality in the Bay. The state is way behind on its goal of reducing the amount of nitrogen it releases into Chesapeake waters, and legislators have signaled that they may freeze or redirect conservation funding that is necessary to help make up the difference. We’ll be warning policymakers under mounting pressure to deal with COVID-19 impacts that this is not the time to cut job-creating investments in water quality projects.
Safeguarding “America’s Salmon Forest”
The Forest Service is soon expected to issue a final decision on a proposal that would eliminate conservation safeguards for 9.2 million acres of roadless public lands in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest—the largest national forest in the U.S. and the world’s largest remaining temperate rainforest. This rollback would negatively affect waterways that sustain salmon as well as Sitka black-tailed deer, black and brown bear, moose, and Roosevelt elk. We’ll be advocating for keeping the national Roadless Rule in place in Alaska to safeguard undeveloped and intact habitats.
Restoring Native Grasses Could Lessen the Plight of the Bobwhite
Why isn’t the USDA leaning more heavily on native grassland restoration to save this and other iconic species?
“I haven’t seen one of them around here in years.” Whether you’re talking to farmers or wingshooters, this statement about bobwhite quail is as familiar and repeated as the bird’s distinct whistle: bob-WHITE! bob-WHITE!
Across Texas rangelands and southeastern pine forests historically ample quail habitat has declined over the last half century. Unfortunately, the story of bobwhites—once one of the most important game species in North America—is representative of a greater issue all too common in the world of wildlife conservation. The iconic game bird has effectively been forced into a patchwork of suitable habitat, all but removing our opportunities to chase that distinct whistle across the bird’s historic range.
Ornithologists at Cornell University have labeled the bobwhite quail a common bird in steep decline, an appropriate moniker given their finding of a steady 4-percent annual population decline—that’s an 85-percent drop since 1966.
The “why” of it all is well agreed upon at this point: land conversion. The steady creep of development, monoculture cropland, edge-to-edge farming, and pesticide use has contributed to the slow-motion erosion of the diverse habitat required to sustain populations of bobwhites.
The below graph by the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative illustrates the trend.
Part of the challenge facing species recovery efforts is that gentleman bob has very particular tastes when it comes to habitat. Quail are ground-nesting birds that require a mix of seasonal vegetation. During colder months, coveys huddle in dense shrubs and grasses, and in the spring and summer, they opt to nest, forage, and brood in tall forbs and grasses that provide lush groundcover, shade, and security from predators. Quail need to feed on a diversity of seeds, fruits, and bugs in these grasses but escape to woody brush when they catch the eye of a hungry predator—all within 12 inches of the ground.
Understanding the fastidious nature of bobwhites is essential to the successful establishment of sustainable quail habitat. This has led groups like NBCI, which leads the way on bobwhite recovery, to support the adoption of native grasses into grassland restoration. In 2018, the TRCP worked with several of our partners to include official language encouraging the use of native grasses for the very first time in established Farm Bill conservation practices.
But that work is far from done. This provision was included in a Committee Report, which establishes a degree of congressional intent, but it holds little more weight than a suggestion as the U.S. Department of Agriculture moves ahead with implementation of the Farm Bill. Currently, several private land conservation programs only support the establishment of the “lowest practicable cost perennial conserving use cover crop”—whether native or non-native—which may sustain some species and benefit soil health, but is not guaranteed to provide the quality cover habitat required by bobwhite populations.
For these reasons, the TRCP was proud to join a handful of our conservation partners to become part of the Native Grasslands Alliance. Together, we’ll coordinate policy and communications efforts in support of increasing the adoption of native grasses and vegetation on both working and retired public and private lands.
The establishment of native vegetation is not only critical to the recovery of bobwhites, but also to address collapsing populations of songbirds, monarch butterflies, and other pollinators in recent years. The continued reliance upon introduced grasses in USDA programs runs counter to other ongoing efforts to restore these species. It begs the question: Is the public interest being accounted for when native grasses are forgone for the sake of economic ease?
One thing can be sure, a return to the huntable bobwhite populations of years past will not be achieved without a sea change in how American agriculture approaches grassland conservation and restoration.
One of the Farm Bill’s Most Popular Conservation Programs Is Losing Ground
Here’s how current administration of the conservation reserve program is leading to shrinking acreage and fewer habitat benefits across private lands
Each year, millions of American sportsmen and women hunt turkeys, quail, pheasants, deer, and other game species on private lands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, one of the most widely recognized voluntary private land conservation programs in the Farm Bill. In the 35 years since its inception, the CRP has become one of the most successful programs, as well, providing a host of benefits to wildlife, farmers, ranchers, and sportsmen alike.
In addition to improving soil, water, and habitat health, the CRP has become an economic support for rural communities and serves an important risk management function for enrolled landowners. Unfortunately, the current administration of the program has led to the hemorrhaging of baseline acreage, which threatens to unwind years of accrued conservation benefits.
The 2018 Farm Bill made a handful of changes to the CRP to ensure that enrollment could grow from 24 million to 27 million acres incrementally over the life of the five-year bill. Then, in late 2019, the Farm Service Agency announced guidance revising the management of CRP enrollment in the coming years.
This is typical following the passage of a Farm Bill and allows the agency to use its discretion to ensure that the program remains a practical tool for interested landowners. However, in reviewing the FSA’s changes, the TRCP and several of our partner organizations have grown concerned with two things: changes to rental rate calculations and the elimination of valuable cost shares.
Previously, the FSA would take into account the soil productivity of given acreage when determining rental rates. Now, the local county rental average is the sole factor in determining the annual rental rate for CRP—ignoring the various conditions that contribute to the value of a tract of land.
Further, the agency eliminated cost shares for the mid-contract management of CRP lands—this means that landowners are compensated for the land being out of production but not for upkeep. Program contracts last ten to 15 years, and conservation practices, particularly those on sensitive lands, require maintenance over time to safeguard their conservation value. By removing this support but continuing to require that the work be done, the FSA puts landowners in the position of facing additional expenses that will play out over the life of their contract.
The TRCP and others warned that weakening the economic support for CRP landowners could affect landowner interest and result in the program leaking acreage. And this is something we were watching as the agency proceeded in holding a General CRP sign-up from December to February 2020.
Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back
In mid-March, the FSA announced that the agency succeeded in enrolling 3.4 million acres into the program. Unfortunately, 5.4 million acres currently in the program will expire just as those contracts go into effect.
Here’s how this all shakes out:
22.5 million acres—or 2 million acres below the 24.5-million-acre cap—were enrolled in CRP as of December 2019 + 3.4 million acres enters CRP in October 2020 – 5.4 million acres expire by October 2020 20.5 million total acres—4.5 million acres below the 25-million-acre cap—will be enrolled in CRP as of October 2020
This more than doubles the current acreage shortfall, and another 7 million acres is set to expire by October 2021. [It’s important to note that sign-ups are still ongoing for the continuous CRP, as well as CRP Grasslands, Clean Lakes Estuaries and Rivers (CLEAR), and the Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP), but enrollment in these programs will not make up the growing acreage shortfall.]
The Farmer’s Balance Sheet
An increasing acreage shortfall is concerning, particularly given that this should have been a banner year for CRP sign-ups. Enrollment in the program typically has an inverse relationship with crop prices, and between weather events that shortened growing seasons and trade disputes harming export markets, farmers have faced a tough couple of years. In fact, USDA agricultural projections have anticipated that lower corn, soy, and wheat prices would drive the CRP to meet its rising cap.
So why didn’t more landowners seize the opportunity to enroll in the most recent sign-up? Simply put, the financial incentives offered by the FSA just didn’t cut it.
A host of variables go into how a farmer plans their land use to ensure that they can keep the lights on and gas in the tractor. If the incentives and rental rates offered by the FSA aren’t competitive, it makes more sense for a landowner to plant potential CRP lands or rent them out to a neighboring farmer.
We’ve heard numerous calls for the FSA to re-open the sign-up and give more landowners the chance to enroll acreage. However, if the product they are offering isn’t attracting interest in the first place, keeping their doors open for a few more weeks isn’t going to address the problem. With that in mind, in early April, the TRCP joined with several of our partner organizations in making recommendations to the FSA to grow landowner interest in the program.
Among the recommendations, we suggested restoring mid-contract cost shares as well as the consideration of soil productivity in rental rates. We also asked for a published timeline of general CRP sign-up periods to give landowners all the information necessary to make informed decisions about their lands.
What You Can Do
USDA Secretary Perdue has said publicly that he intends for the FSA to keep pace with the new CRP enrollment cap, and we are committed to helping that happen. The TRCP, alongside our partners, is working to ensure that the program continues to be an American conservation success story, but we could use your help.
Please visit crpworks.org and add your name to the list of sportsmen, landowners, and concerned citizens fighting for the future of private land conservation.
$49M Will Expand Recreational Access on Private Land
Because we could all use some good news right now
This month, the Natural Resource Conservation Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it would invest nearly $49 million in projects to enhance public access for outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing, on private land across 26 states. These awards are made possible by the Farm Bill’s Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, or VPA-HIP, which is the only federal conservation program that helps private landowners open their property to public access.
Ultimately, this could be a down payment on hunter recruitment where lack of access is a major barrier for beginners. In some places, the funding will be focused on lands near metropolitan areas or improving online resources to market these opportunities.
But don’t forget the “hip” part of this program: Dollars can also be used to improve wildlife habitat, which could boost game populations across the entire landscape. This will be done in wetland, upland, grassland, forest, and stream habitats with the most recent round of funding.
These advances for access and habitat highlight the need to continue investing in VPA-HIP in the next five-year Farm Bill, which is already something we’re prioritizing with our conservation partners.
Here are the 26 states gaining more ground, how much will be spent, and what types of habitat will benefit.
$1.18 million to expand the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Landowner Relations Program, which provides financial incentives to private landowners who provide the public with opportunities to hunt and fish on their land.
$2.1 million to enhance hunting access and waterfowl habitat on rice fields neighboring nearby National Wildlife Refuges and state Wildlife Management Areas.
$1.2 million to expand the state’s Walk-In Access program for small- and big-game hunters.
$1.9 million will fund the lease of farm and forest land to expand opportunities for dove hunting in the state’s Wildlife Management Area Public Access Program.
$900,000 will fund the enrollment of additional hunting and fishing acres into the state’s Access Yes! Program, as well as jumpstart the creation of a Teton Valley Wildlife Viewing Project.
$2 million will expand the Illinois Recreational Access Program with a focus on metropolitan areas and the enrollment of wetland easements.
$750,000 will fund the strategic enrollment of acreage into the state’s Access Program Providing Land Enhancements (APPLE) initiative.
$1.5 million will help expand the Iowa Habitat and Access Program (IHAP).
$2.1 million will fund the expansion of incentive payments and lease options made available to landowners to open public access and improve wildlife habitat.
$850,000 will fund agency efforts to create a new access program with a focus on dove fields and wetland easements.
$1.6 million to expand the state’s Hunting Access Program (HAP), specifically to provide sharptail grouse and deer hunting opportunities.
$2.5 million to boost incentives for landowners to enroll in Minnesota’s Walk-In Access program.
$2.23 million will go to the Missouri Outdoor Recreation Access Program (MRAP) for private landowners willing to allow access and improve wildlife habitat on their farm, ranch, and forest lands.
$1.89 million to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to provide more walk-in hunting access on previously inaccessible acres with high-quality game bird habitats.
$3 million to expand walk-in access and improve habitat on acreage within Nebraska’s Open Fields and Waters (OFW) program.
$1 million will go to the Santa Clara Pueblo Tribe to support access restoration and improved fishing opportunities on the Rio Grande.
$1.83 million will support the newly created Ohio Public Access for Wildlife (OPAW) program, opening acres to hunting, trapping, and wildlife viewing across the state.
$3 million will support expansion of the Oklahoma Land Access Program (OLAP) near metropolitan areas and establish an online database of private acres open for access.
$2.86 million will support expansion of existing public access programs and facilitate the reenrollment of access on expiring VPA-HIP acreage.
$668,361 will support fishing access via Pennsylvania’s Public Fishing Access and Conservation Easement Program.
$469,476 in funds will facilitate the growth of the state’s Public Waterfowl Lottery Hunts Program to support more duck blinds on private land.
$2.18 million will support expanded hunting opportunities as well as new access to state fisheries from across private lands.
$1.83 million will support the expansion of existing public hunting programs, increasing both available acreage and days. The funds will also increase maintenance capacity across state-leased fishing access sites.
$2.998 million will facilitate growth of Virginia’s Public Access Lands for Sportsmen program and provide additional financial support to enrolled landowners seeking to improve wildlife habitat.
$2.74 million will build upon existing state recreational access programs and support habitat restoration on enrolled lands.
$1.91 million will support wetland and grassland restoration in southern counties and support financial incentives for landowners to enroll acreage in the state’s Turkey Hunting Access Program.
$1.54 million will support enrollment and habitat restoration on acreage in the state’s Access Yes Program, plus other lands and habitat programs.
Is your state on the list? Leave us a comment if you use walk-in access programs where you live.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
WHAT WILL FEWER HUNTERS MEAN FOR CONSERVATION?
The precipitous drop in hunter participation should be a call to action for all sportsmen and women, because it will have a significant ripple effect on key conservation funding models.