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The Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act of 2023 has been introduced by Senator Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Senator Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) to strengthen one of the most critical Farm Bill programs for America’s sportsmen and sportswomen: the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. It is the only federal initiative that helps to create public hunting and fishing opportunities on private land, and this new legislation calls for tripling the program’s impact.
“Lack of access is the largest barrier to hunter and angler participation, and the USDA’s Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program is the single best federal tool to increase recreational access on private lands,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We applaud Senators Daines, Bennet, and Marshall for their leadership on the Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act and look forward to working with Congress to expand hunting and fishing opportunities for all Americans.”
The legislation would invest $150 million over the next five years in the VPA-HIP, which provides grants to states and Tribes to be implemented at the local level. This increased investment was among the recommendations made by TRCP’s Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group in its “Hunter and Angler Priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill” released earlier this year.
The Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act is supported by more than 30 hunting, fishing, and conservation organizations.
“VPA-HIP is an incredibly important program for hunters, opening nearly one million private acres to public hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation over its lifetime,” says Torin Miller, senior director of policy for the National Deer Association. “Not surprisingly, interest and enrollment in the program is growing. The Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act of 2023 recognizes the growing interest in the program and the importance of maintaining quality hunting access across the country. The bill’s $150-million authorization will ensure expanded and continued enrollment in VPA-HIP, benefiting hunters, landowners, and local communities. The National Deer Association is proud to endorse this legislation.”
“The introduction of the Voluntary Access Improvement Act is very welcome news for duck hunters as VPA-HIP has accomplished significant increases in access for waterfowl hunters,” says John Devney, chief policy officer at Delta Waterfowl. “From the WRICE program in Arkansas to the PLOTS program in North Dakota and WIA and COOP in South Dakota, VPA-HIP is providing important access for hunters across the country. We sincerely appreciate Senators Daines, Bennett and Marshall for advancing this key priority in the 2023 Farm Bill.”
“Since 2008, the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program has opened millions of acres of private lands and waters to America’s anglers,” says Glenn Hughes, president of the American Sportfishing Association. “We thank Senators Daines, Bennet, and Marshall for their support of this program, which will expand sportfishing opportunities for generations to come.”
The VPA-HIP, once commonly known as “open fields,” has a very special place in the hearts of TRCP’s staff and supporters, as it was championed by our inspirational co-founder, Jim Range, before his untimely death. The program was established and funded through the 2008, 2014, and 2018 Farm Bills—most recently at $50 million over five years—with its impacts felt across the country.
Apart from creating more outdoor recreation access, VPA-HIP funding is also utilized to provide technical and financial assistance to landowners for wildlife habitat improvement and enhancement projects. It is often layered with other Farm Bill programs that have habitat benefits, such as Conservation Reserve Program and Wetland Reserve Easements. And the program allows states to address liability, alleviating a roadblock for many landowners to open their lands to the public.
Recent studies have shown that the VPA-HIP has a more than eight-to-one return on investment in the form of outdoor recreation spending in rural communities.
Photo by USDA
Today, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership responded to the Bureau of Land Management’s announcement of a proposed Conservation and Landscape Health Rule. The rule intends to clarify and support the agency’s multiple use and sustained yield authority provided through the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, with a focus on restoration, protection, and balanced development.
“The TRCP supports the restoration and conservation of fish and wildlife habitat on BLM lands as part of the agency’s multiple use and sustained yield mission, and we appreciate the opportunity to engage in this process,” said Joel Webster, VP of western conservation at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “BLM public lands and habitat are under increased pressure from drought, severe wildfires, and invasive species, and the Conservation and Landscape Health Rule has the potential to improve the BLM’s ability to address those challenges.”
The BLM manages more than 245 million acres, primarily in the American West, and the agency is tasked with balancing a multitude of uses, including conservation, recreation, and resource development. The proposed rule is open for a 75-day public comment period.
“We plan to roll up our sleeves to ensure that the BLM’s Conservation and Landscape Health Rule improves management of our public lands to benefit sportsmen and sportswomen,” continued Webster. “TRCP encourages the BLM to engage with a range of stakeholder groups when refining the rule to make sure it is workable, durable, and successfully implemented.”
Today, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership praised a bill—HB 877—sponsored by Representative Katie Zolnikov of Billings currently under consideration in the Montana legislature. This legislation would establish a Wildlife Accommodations and Crossings Fund of $1 million to match federal dollars for the construction of fencing and crossings on Montana roadways to reduce vehicle collisions with wildlife. The bill passed out of the House Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Committee with a bipartisan 13-6 vote on Tuesday, March 28th. HB 887 is expected to be considered by the full House later this week.
“Montana has one of the highest rates of wildlife-vehicle collisions in the nation, and that’s something we need to change,” said Scott Laird, Montana field representative with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The TRCP greatly appreciates Representative Zolnikov’s leadership to propose and advance legislation that will help reduce vehicle and wildlife accidents on Montana roadways.”
According to a recent report from State Farm Insurance Company, Montana has the second highest number of wildlife-vehicle collisions in the United States, with 17,000 incidents reported annually. These collisions not only threaten public safety—53 people died on Montana roadways because of wildlife-vehicle collisions between 2011 and 2020—but they are expensive, with each collision costing an average of $6,617. Wildlife accommodations on public roadways (fencing and under/over passes) have been shown to reduce vehicle collisions with wildlife, saving lives and helping to prevent costly repairs.
“HB 877 would enable the Montana Department of Transportation to take full advantage of significant federal dollars,” continued Laird. “Doing so would not only reduce vehicle and wildlife accidents in Montana—it would support and conserve the migration of popular big game species valued by hunters.”
In 2021, the U.S. Congress passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes a $350 million Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program, a grant program that requires no less than 60% of funds be used in rural areas. On March 1, 2023, the Montana Department of Transportation announced a Montana Wildlife & Transportation Partnership Planning Tool, which will help the agency plan future projects aimed at reducing vehicle collisions with wildlife on Montana roadways.
“If the Wildlife Accommodations and Crossings Fund is created, MDT will have resources to implement projects that make our roads safer,” concluded Laird. “We encourage the legislature to build on the momentum of the recent committee action and move this bill swiftly forward for the people and wildlife of Montana.”
Photo Credit: CSKT & MDT
The Colorado River has the well-deserved nickname of the hardest working river in America. The river’s usage is as diverse as the people and species it serves.
Thirty different Tribes and a third of the U.S. Latino population depend on the Colorado River, which flows through two countries and provides drinking water to 40 million people across seven states. Its waters provide us with power for our homes and businesses, irrigate crops that are sent all over the country, and support critical fish and wildlife habitat that power our hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation opportunities.
Currently, the Colorado River Basin is in a 23-year drought—the worst dry period in 1,200 years. With above average snowfall so far this year in portions of the basin, some have indicated that the drought is over. The truth is that we need several years of above average snow across the basin to make a substantial dent in the drought.
The news is not all bleak for the Colorado River. Recently, $4 billion in federal funds were made available to address drought impacts and support habitat restoration in the West, with the vast majority of these funds going to address the Colorado River crisis. The Bureau of Reclamation and seven states, with input from Tribes and other critical stakeholders, are also in the process of developing new strategies to manage the Colorado River system in ways that address the concerns of agricultural producers, sustain drinking water supplies, and benefit the environment.
We commend the Biden-Harris Administration for its leadership and the substantial investments it has made to tackle drought in the West, and specifically the Colorado River Basin. In February of this year, for example, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that $728 million would be spent to address Western drought and improve climate resilience.
This new funding, made possible by legislation passed in the last two years, supplements unprecedented investments to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River System now and into the future. Additionally, the Department of Interior recently announced an additional $120 million to rebuild and restore units of the National wildlife Refuge system and partnering State wildlife Management Areas.
But there is more to be done. These federal investments are only a down payment on the longer-term need to address the challenges facing the Colorado River Basin. Sustained, durable investments in a broad range of adaptation strategies will be necessary.
The challenges in the Colorado River Basin serve as a reminder that we need to live as part of nature and not separate from it. If you agree, help us advocate for additional long-term solutions that will ensure the future of hunting and fishing in the Colorado River Basin. Tell Congress and Interior Secretary Haaland to build on recent commitments to conservation in the Colorado River Basin.
Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.Learn More