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…
— Lorraine Lawrence (@asafarigal) November 23, 2016
Of course, this means non-Westerners rely heavily on access to private lands.
In 2012, there were more than 914 million acres devoted to agriculture across the United States. These acres can make for excellent habitat teeming with some of our favorite species—sage grouse, quail, whitetails, doves, and geese—and present some of the best hunting opportunities in the nation, assuming hunters are allowed in.
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.
It’s a total win-win-win.
BONUS: We are extra proud of VPA-HIP, because TRCP’s co-founder helped put the program in motion almost a decade ago. For the other two posts in our three-part series on this important part of the Farm Bill, click here and here. And learn more about other Farm Bill conservation programs that work for farmers, sportsmen, and wildlife.
A Big Game Expert Becomes a Conservation Champion in Colorado
Meet the TRCP volunteer keeping a watchful eye on energy development and habitat management in elk country
TRCP’s ambassador program calls on sportsmen-conservationists to help advance our goals by offering local volunteer support. These #PublicLandsProud hometown heroes are not willing to sit idly by as the wild places we love are lost. They know there’s more to our sports than just hunting, fishing, and going home.
Meet John Ellenberger, our newest volunteer ambassador representing the great state of Colorado. For three decades, Ellenberger worked as a wildlife biologist and big game manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and he’s seen it all. Over the years, he’s also learned that, in conservation as in hunting and fishing, there’s a time for restraint—passing on a small bull to get a chance at a monster next year or sacrificing a productive hunt to share the experience with a squirmy grandchild—and a time for action. Learn more about our Colorado ambassador and why we’re glad to have him on our side.
TRCP: What’s your earliest memory in the outdoors and how do you spend your time outside these days?
Ellenberger: My earliest outdoor memory is going rabbit hunting with my Dad and older sister. I had to be only 3 or 4 years old at the time, so it didn’t take very long before my sister and I would get tired and didn’t want to walk anymore. Dad would then carry both of us, plus his shotgun, and any rabbits he had killed, back to our car. Now that I have children and grandchildren of my own, I have a great deal of respect for the patience that my father must have had. He was willing to take two youngsters hunting with him even though he knew it would likely result in his outing being cut short because we would get tired or bored. I applaud his efforts in attempting to include us in his outdoor activities, and I try to do the same with my grandkids now, no matter how short their attention spans.
TRCP: What got you interested in TRCP and the work we do? How do you see yourself helping TRCP achieve our conservation mission?
Ellenberger: Approximately three or four years ago, Joel Webster called asking for help assessing the impacts of energy development on deer and elk habitat in northwestern Colorado. I was referred to TRCP because of my years of experience working as a wildlife biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife in the northwestern portion of the state. We developed a working relationship on that original issue and several others. The work TRCP was doing impressed me—your staff wasn’t simply blaming wildlife managers for declining wildlife populations or dropping hunter success rates. The organization understood the importance of protecting habitat as a way to preserve and protect wildlife populations, and you are willing to take that message to the public and try to influence them to take action in support of habitat protection issues. I wanted to be a part of that.
Beginning as a field biologist in the Northwest Region of the state in 1976, I worked for the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW), what is now Colorado Parks and Wildlife, for 33 years. I was the senior terrestrial biologist for the NW region of CDOW from 1979 to 1996, before becoming the state big game manager, and I held that position until I retired in 2004. My experience has provided me with a wealth of information about terrestrial wildlife populations in northwestern Colorado, I maintain good working relationships with wildlife managers, and I understand how the agency manages various wildlife populations for which they are responsible. Compared to the average sportsmen, all of this gives me a leg up when it comes to making science-based recommendations for conservation issues that the TRCP is involved in.
TRCP: How can everyday sportsmen make a difference for fish and wildlife? Why is it so important?
Ellenberger: Sportsmen can influence political decisions that affect wildlife populations and their habitat by first informing themselves about the issues and then contacting natural resource managers and elected officials to express their educated opinions and preferences. In Colorado and other Western states, there are numerous issues that have the potential to have negative impacts on wildlife populations and their habitats. Unless sportsmen share their opinions on projects affecting wildlife and wildlife habitat, decisions will be made that might negatively impact wildlife and sportsmen’s opportunities to utilize and enjoy wildlife resources.
TRCP: What’s the most pressing conservation issue where you live?
Ellenberger: There are a number of important conservation issues in western Colorado, but first and foremost is the impact of energy development—primarily drilling for natural gas—on wildlife and habitat. The need to oppose the transfer of ownership and management of public lands is also very important.
TRCP: What has been your most memorable hunt? What’s still on your bucket list?
Ellenberger: One of my most memorable hunts was the year I drew a bull elk tag for unit 201 in northwest Colorado. On the first day of that hunt I called a young bull to within nine yards. Although I chose not to harvest that particular bull, it was very exciting to experience that animal up close and personal, to the point that I could watch him blink and flare his nostrils as he breathed. My patience paid off as I harvested a larger bull a few days later, but it was almost anti-climactic compared to the experience of calling in that first bull.
I have two sons-in-law and two grandchildren, and I hope to be able to instill a strong interest in hunting, fishing, and conservation in all of them. Hunting and fishing trips with them would be on my bucket list.
TRCP: Where can we find you this fall?
Ellenberger: I already had the opportunity to hunt bull elk during the first rifle elk season here in Colorado. Although I wasn’t lucky enough to harvest an animal, we saw a number of elk and the total experience was enjoyable. I plan to pursue chukar partridges later this fall, and if the warm weather continues, I hope to be able to make a few more fly fishing trips to the Gunnison River. In addition to hunting and fishing, I will be out and about hiking, mountain biking, and photographing wildlife.
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 opportunities to access private land with great wildlife habitat
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.
Check back in two weeks for more about the benefits of VPA-HIP, the “open fields” of our co-founder’s imagination. And learn more about our agriculture and private lands programs and partners right now.
Glassing the Hill: November 28 – December 2
The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress
The Senate and House are both in session this week, but lawmakers are eager to get out of town as soon as possible.
First thing’s first—funding. With only 16 legislative days left on the 2016 calendar, Senate and House leadership are running out of time to pass a new continuing resolution (CR)—which would keep spending at fiscal year 2016 levels—before the current CR expires on December 9. In the end-of-year funding crunch of previous years, we’ve kept a watchful eye out for dangerous riders, cuts, and provisions that would be bad for conservation, but the latest intel from Capitol Hill indicates that a clean CR should pass without any of these concerns, giving a new Congress until March 2017 to sort out long-term funding measures.
Temporary pass for sage grouse. Second on leadership’s must-pass shortlist is “The National Defense Authorization Act” (NDAA) conference report. Thankfully, a House-written provision that would undo federal and state collaboration on sage-grouse conservation plans was taken out during conference negotiations, and is not included in the final report.
Looks like a Congressional tug-of-war, and sportsmen’s provisions are the rope. The ticking clock doesn’t seem to be rushing energy bill conference negotiations. Here’s the play-by-play: The initial offer came from the Senate side. Then, on November 18, the House presented a counteroffer with no sportsmen’s provisions (reminder: good things for habitat and conservation funding) included. Just after Thanksgiving break, Senate conferees issued another counteroffer, which reinstated the Land and Water Conservation Fund and other sportsmen’s provisions—what the House had taken out. Some Republican leaders in the House seem likely to view the next Congress as more favorable for energy legislation, but both Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) are still enthusiastic about reaching the finish line this month.
Everglades boost might make it through this brief window. “The Water Resource Development Act” (WRDA) is another end-of-the-year conference that could come to the House and Senate floors. Last week, committees spent several hours in a closed-door meeting discussing reconciliation of the Senate and House version of WRDA. The Senate version authorizes twice the funding for water resources projects than the House version, but both bills include provisions for the Central Everglades Planning Project and nature-based infrastructure, such as marshes and dams. Since a spending package is expected to be clean, lawmakers could use WRDA as a vehicle to pass emergency funding for the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan—in which case, WRDA could pass this year.
The Democratic Party could see some surprising changes. This week, the Democratic Caucus will meet to vote on leadership positions. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the 13-year Democratic minority leader and former speaker of the House, will be challenged by three-term freshman Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio). Rep. Ryan’s district is located in the Rust Belt, an area the Democrats failed to secure in the November 8 election.
What else we’re tracking:
Wednesday, November 30
Legislation on recreational permitting on public lands, as well as two other bills, will be discussed in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands hearing.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
CHEERS TO CONSERVATION
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