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.

Rabbit hunters meet with the landowner and run their beagles on MRAP land near Marceline. Image courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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.

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.

public lands map

Image courtesy of State of the Birds 2011.

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.

Report Assessing the Economic Benefit of VPA-HIP: 2011, produced for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies by Southwick Associates. See the full document for more information.

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 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.

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.

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

Image courtesy of 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.

Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

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.

Check back next week for more, and learn about our agriculture and private lands programs and partners, right now. If you would like to donate to the Jim Range Conservation Fund, please click here.

Watchdog Report Indicates Checks Were Written But On-Farm Conservation Was Never Verified

USDA’s Inspector General points to botched implementation of compliance checks that ensure real benefits go to fish and wildlife habitat on private lands

After thousands of hours of work, hundreds of meetings with Congressional staff, and three years of shared effort with colleagues that had become like family, I poured a tall Maker’s Mark when the president signed the 2014 Farm Bill at a special ceremony in Michigan. The law included bipartisan language that extended conservation compliance to the federal crop insurance program, the importance of which would be difficult to overstate. Was it the perfect compliance provision? Honestly, no. But politics is still the art of the possible, and I believe it was the strongest provision possible.

After all of that effort from so many folks, it is more frustrating than usual to hear from the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) watchdog agency that the provision the TRCP prioritized over all others has not been implemented with the vigor it requires. This should not only alarm sportsmen-conservationists but also the American taxpayer.

Image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

For the uninitiated, conservation compliance can be explained like this: It’s a way for taxpayers to be sure that, in exchange for farm support payments, farmers are meeting a minimal threshold for avoiding environmental harm. Conservation compliance has applied to almost all USDA support programs since 1985, and the 2014 Farm Bill expanded compliance requirements to the federal crop insurance program, which has grown over the years to be the biggest farm support program. Conservation compliance is not onerous for farmers, most of whom have been subject to the requirements for years.

But a report issued in March by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which serves as the internal watchdog at the USDA, outlined a serious problem with the enforcement of conservation compliance. Many tracts of land that were subject to compliance were not being included in the random checks performed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In fact, in 2015, the first year after the new Farm Bill was passed, ten states—including major agricultural hubs like Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota—had zero tracts subject to random compliance checks. That’s right. Zero. In Iowa!

The report mostly points to a lack of coordination between several USDA agencies, and it cites the need for a “Memorandum of Understanding” between those agencies to ensure a better universe of data and that an actual human being at each agency is held responsible for appropriate implementation. Frankly, these are typical shortcomings of a large bureaucracy that no one would describe as nimble. But what is at stake is critically important: water quality and the health of potentially innumerable wetlands, not to mention the continued defensibility of these financial support programs to the American taxpayer.

But let’s get to the main thrust of the problem: a bureaucratic lack of desire. The USDA is a department that for a hundred years has been in the business of writing checks to producers. Its stock-in-trade is financial incentives that smooth out the inherent risks of agriculture, making life more predictable for American farmers—and that is a laudable thing. This incentive-based business model is why the USDA is still a relatively popular federal entity; as a result, USDA finds it difficult to risk losing the popularity that comes with spreading the wealth. It is nice to be loved.

But the law must be enforced, and the USDA has a responsibility—not just to agricultural producers, but also to the American taxpayers who have invested billions in farmland conservation and expect plentiful clean water in return.

We work hard on Capitol Hill to make sure that the laws passed by Congress aim for the best results possible for fish and wildlife habitat. That can be an all-consuming task. But we cannot forget that the job continues for years after the ink on those laws is dry. For the duration of this five-year Farm Bill, and as we turn our attention to the next one, the TRCP will continue our work; we must close the gaps in compliance enforcement that are unnecessarily costing us our wetlands, water quality, and hard-earned wages.

254 Groups Agree: Don’t Re-Open the Farm Bill

Congress needs to stay committed to funding levels set in 2014, and more sportsmen’s groups than ever before are joining the outcry. 

Yesterday, a broad coalition of 254 organizations—representing hunting and fishing, agriculture, nutrition, conservation, rural development, finance, forestry, energy, trade, local government, labor, equipment manufacturing, and crop insurance—delivered a letter to Congressional leadership urging them to reject calls for cuts to any Farm Bill program in the ongoing discussion of fiscal year 2017 spending bills. This diverse group includes a greater proportion of conservation and sportsmen’s groups than any previous coalition.

Image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

It took Congress over three years of debate and compromise to send the 2014 Farm Bill to President Obama’s desk with bipartisan support. The result of that unprecedented effort was a Farm Bill that consolidated more than 100 programs and is estimated to save as much as $23 billion before 2024.

Many of the Farm Bill’s reforms impact sportsmen. On one hand, we saw the Conservation Reserve Program dramatically reduced from 32 million acres to just 24 million acres. On the other hand, the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program will deliver $1.2 billion through 2018 to projects benefitting clean water, soil health, and wildlife habitat.

Just as for sportsmen, there is some good and some bad in the Farm Bill for every one of the groups that signed the letter, but now is not the time to revisit the merits of the legislation. The conservation, farm, and food stakeholders all agreed to these reforms, so we want to see them preserved through the end of the current Farm Bill—not trimmed or debated again before their time.

Make no bones about it—when the Farm Bill needs to be reauthorized in 2018, all of us, including the TRCP, will fight for improvements to the programs that we care about. But, for now, we agree: Congress should uphold the existing agreement, and not re-open the Farm Bill this year.

You can read the letter here.

The Teddy Bear Delisting and ‘That Hunt’

You may know the tale of Theodore Roosevelt’s Mississippi black bear hunt in the fall of 1902, his second year in office. After all, it’s one of the most famous hunts to have taken place on American soil, and it inspired the most famous toy in the world – the Teddy Bear.

Image courtesy of Creative Commons.

But shortly after Roosevelt came to Mississippi in the early 1900s, over-hunting and agricultural development in the Delta’s swamps practically eliminated the Louisiana black bear from its native range in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. It was eventually listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as a threatened species by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1992, bringing about much concern from landowners, the timber industry, and wildlife professionals. This forward-thinking group hoped that the downward trend could be reversed and suitable black bear habitat within the region could be restored.

That same year, the Wetlands Reserve Program was instituted, building upon the successes of the Conservation Reserve Program, launched in 1985. Together, these programs resulted in the restoration of more than one million acres of black bear habitat, and black bear populations slowly began to rise across the bear’s historic range.

Now, Teddy’s bear is having a moment. After more than two decades of conservation efforts, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has proposed removing the Louisiana black bear from the list of threatened and endangered species under the ESA. “The Louisiana black bear symbolizes how the Endangered Species Act can be a remarkably effective tool to protect and recover threatened and endangered species when we work in close partnership with states and other stakeholders,” Jewell said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, state agencies, non-profit organizations, and private landowners are all to thank for the Louisiana black bear’s success.

Image courtesy of USFWS.

According to Hunter Fordice, a landowner and son of Mississippi’s former governor, Kirk Fordice, “The first documented black bear cubs born in the Mississippi Delta in some 30 years were born in the middle of a 12-year-old Wetlands Reserve Program tract on my property in Issaquena County in 2007. The Wetlands Reserve Program and the Conservation Reserve Program have restored hundreds of thousands of acres of bottomland hardwoods across the Lower Mississippi Valley, which in turn has provided habitat suitable for the Louisiana black bear to once again thrive in its historical home range. As a landowner, it is very gratifying to see these conservation programs working so well.”

We think Roosevelt would be proud to see the population’s rebound and to know that the next generation of outdoorsmen will share the woods with the bear that “bears” his nickname. To celebrate, let’s hear the story of this famous hunt.

A Famous Hunt and Hunter

Almost every aspect of Roosevelt’s 1902 hunt at Smede’s farm was the responsibility of the uneducated, but extremely intelligent, 56-year-old Holt Collier, who was born into slavery and served as a Confederate scout before becoming a legend for his hunting skills. Roosevelt (who announced that he was to be addressed only as “Colonel” throughout the hunt) expressed his desire to participate in the chase. However his demands for a shot on the very first day, and the timidity of his hosts, condemned him to a stationary blind. He was placed to have a clear shot when the bear, driven by Collier’s pack of nearly 40 dogs, would emerge from one of the dense cane thickets on the farm.

Roosevelt and his hunting partner, Huger Foote, waited on the stand all morning. Around mid-afternoon they broke for lunch, annoying Collier, who’d worked extremely hard to bring a bear to that exact spot only to find the stand abandoned.  As Collier recalled,

“That was eight o’clock in the mornin’ when I hit the woods an’ roused my bear where I knowed I’d fin him. Den me an’ dat bear had a time, fightin’ an’ chargin’ an’ tryin’ to make him take a tree. Big ole bear but he wouldn’t climb nary tree. I could have killed him a thousand times… I sweated myself to death in that canebrake. So did the bear. By keeping between the bear and the river, I knew he’d sholy make for the water hole where I left the Cunnel [sic]. After a while the bear started that way and popped out of the gap where I said he’d go. But I didn’t hear a shot, and that pestered me… It sholy pervoked me because I’d promised the President to bring him a bear to that log, and there he was.”

-Holt Collier: His Life, His Roosevelt Hunts, and the Origin of the Teddy Bear by Minor Ferris Buchanan 

It was at this time that the bear turned on the dogs. This put Collier in quite the quandary. He had been given specific orders to save the bear for Roosevelt, who was not to be found, and yet he had to protect the dogs from the deadly bear.

Image courtesy of Dale Divers.

Collier dismounted, shouting at the bear. He approached the bear and tried to distract it as someone rode to camp to get the President. In the meantime, the bear and the dogs fought viciously, and at one point his prize dog was caught in the bear’s grip. Collier swung the stock of his gun and landed a blow to the base of the bear’s skull. Stunned, the bear dropped the dog and Collier seized the opportunity to place a lariat around the bear’s neck so that, when Roosevelt and Foote arrived several minutes later, the animal was tied to a tree.

President Roosevelt refused to claim the bear, citing a “true sportsmen’s code” which holds that the taking of any animal that does not have a sporting chance is forbidden. This famous hunting event inspired the first widespread discussion of the modern code of “fair chase,” a tenet of the Boone and Crockett Club which Roosevelt founded. It is the oldest conservation organization in North America and the second oldest in the world.

Although Roosevelt did not count the hunt as “successful,” the press thought it a most delightful story and spread word of it across the country. Roosevelt’s refusal to kill a defenseless animal was far more newsworthy than the taking of a trophy bear, and as the news spread, Brooklyn toy store owners Rose and Morris Michtom wrote to ask his permission to name their stuffed toy bears after him. The President approved, and “Teddy’s Bears” were born.


James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a Regular Member of the Boone and Crockett Club, and a member of the TRCP Policy Council.

Glassing The Hill: June 8 – 12

The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress

The Senate and House will be in session from Monday through Friday.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

The forecast calls for 100 degrees in Washington later this week, and things are heating up in Congress, as well. On Wednesday, the House Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee will mark up their annual spending bill for many of the agencies in charge of natural resources management. In April, the House Appropriations Committee advanced fiscal year 2016 spending legislation that provided only $30.17 billion for the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Forest Service, and the EPA—that’s a $246-million cut from current spending levels. This will undoubtedly have negative impacts over the agencies who have been forced to work with increasingly shrinking budgets.

The Obama administration, who requested a 6-percent increase for EPA and an additional 8 percent for the Department of the Interior, has issued a veto threat on any spending plan that does not provide fair funding levels. This gap could result in another government shutdown in the coming months. Other looming threats: harmful policy riders that would undermine conservation initiatives and target the President’s climate change efforts.

Getting Around to Farm Bill Programs

On Thursday, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry will hold a hearing on Farm Bill implementation. Members and panelists will discuss the implementation of vital programs designed to encourage farmers to employ more conservation-friendly practices in environmentally-sensitive areas. The Department of Agriculture is still taking formal comments under consideration as it releases its rules for the programs.

Among the programs being discussed are the Conservation Stewardship Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, and Conservation Reserve Program. Quail Forever’s Director of Field Operations Jim Inglis is expected to testify and discuss the Conservation Reserve Program, Regional Conservation Partnerships, and viable implementation strategies. On May 29, the USDA announced that an additional 800,000 acres would be eligible for enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program and earmarked for lands with duck nesting habitat, wetland restoration initiatives, and state acres for wildlife enhancement (SAFE). However, Farm Bill supporters have been otherwise unimpressed by the roll-out of these critical programs.

More information on the hearing can be found here.

New Wave of Threats

Despite the historic release of the EPA and Army Corps of Engineer’s final rule that would clarify protections outlined in the Clean Water Act and protect over 20 million acres of wetlands, opponents of the “Waters of the U.S.” rule have not given up. This week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will markup Senator John Barrasso’s S.1140 which would force the administration to start over and craft another plan that would achieve the same ends.

The bill has strong support from the agricultural community and private industries that feel the rule is a gross federal overstep. The conservation and environmental communities remain in support of the rule, as do 80 scientists, who recently submitted a letter opposing S.1140. The bill will likely pass through the GOP-led committee, but it may face an uphill battle to acquire the necessary votes.

The legislative text can be found here.

This Week in Full:

Tuesday, June 9

Senate Hearing on energy reform and accountability

Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Wednesday, June 10      

House Hearing on WRRDA implementation, one year into enactment

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee

House Hearing on impact of Executive Order 13658 on public lands outfitters and guides

Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Interior

House Markup of fiscal 2016 Interior-EPA appropriations bill

Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee

Senate Markup of S. 1140, Federal Water Quality Protection Act

Senate Environment and Public Works

Senate Legislative hearing on the National Park System

Energy and Natural Resources

Thursday, June 11

House Hearing on farm bill conservation programs

Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry

Good Call: New Conservation Reserve Program Acres Will Enhance Duck Habitat in a Big Way

Today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that an additional 800,000 acres will be eligible for enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a Farm Bill initiative that has allowed agriculture producers to voluntarily conserve environmentally sensitive land—including prime wildlife habitat—for 30 years. Vilsack revealed this big boost to CRP, which he called “one of most successful conservation programs in the history of the country,” during his remarks to hunters and conservationists at the Ducks Unlimited National Convention in Milwaukee, Wis.

Image courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The backdrop is fitting, since 300,000 of these additional acres will be devoted to lands with duck nesting habitat, potentially doubling CRP acres that can benefit ducks in the future. The remaining acres will be split: 100,000 to wetland restoration initiatives and 400,000 to state acres for wildlife enhancement (SAFE)—all good news for sportsmen. For its part, Ducks Unlimited was recognized by Vilsack for leading three separate USDA projects resulting in an overall investment of $25.8 million in conservation efforts across the country.

Vilsack also announced that a general sign-up period would begin in December 2015 to get the ball rolling on CRP enrollment, to which supporters of the program are saying, It’s about time. There hasn’t been a general sign-up since 2013, and more than 15 months after passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, regulation of CRP has been lacking. Enrollment was 1.7 million acres below the prescribed enrollment cap as of April 2015, with contracts for an additional 1.9 million acres set to expire on September 30.

The TRCP has been working closely with our partners in the sportsmen’s and wildlife community, USDA, and Congress to advance many aspects of the program that were addressed by Vilsack’s remarks today. Our Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group galvanized the 12 Senators who sent this letter to the Secretary, calling for a general sign-up to support full enrollment of CRP. And we’re very eager to see USDA complete implementation of the program, including the delayed rollout of a new CRP working grasslands enrollment option, which the department has said to expect later this summer.

For a program that, in just three decades, has grown to 32 times its original acreage and continues to facilitate on-the-ground conservation that strengthens rural economies, we’re expecting great things from CRP. With proper support, this important program can flourish like the wildlife and habitat it benefits.

Open Fields: Where Access and Habitat Coexist

Jared Wiklund is Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s public relations specialist. Contact Wiklund at jwiklund@pheasantsforever.org and follow him on Twitter at @wiklund247.

Publicly accessible land is THE trending topic in the American outdoor recreation community and a major discussion point for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever members. In fact, land access—or the current lack thereof—consistently ranks as one of the top reasons for members joining “The Habitat Organization.”

To help combat the access issue, the 2008 Farm Bill included a new provision called the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP), commonly known as “Open Fields.”  The goal of this program is to encourage private landowners to voluntarily open their land to the public for wildlife-dependent recreation, including hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities. Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever and a host of other conservation organizations have adamantly supported these provisions.

Image by Roger Hill.

Of course, VPA-HIP is important for more than just access. Private landowners control some very important pieces of the conservation puzzle and dictate wildlife habitat/populations in North America. The traditional conservation model for state and federal agencies  is based on land acquisition and easements. VPA-HIP partnerships are redefining the process to open private lands to public recreation and habitat conservation. VPA-HIP provides an excellent opportunity for landowners to have a positive impact on our natural resources with added incentives.

Funding for VPA-HIP helps state and tribal governments boost existing public access programs as well as implement new programs that increase access to private lands. USDA was originally authorized to spend $50 million on VPA-HIP from 2009‐2012, though delays and legislative action ultimately reduced spending to just $9.1 million in 2011. Thankfully, an additional $20 million was allocated in 2014, and USDA recently announced another $20 million in funding for this unique program at the 2015 National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic.

Contrary to what some may think, voluntary public access programs are not found solely in western states. An impressive list of states and tribes from across the country have participated in VPA-HIP to open private lands for public access:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Confederated Tribes
    and Bands of the
    Yakama Nation
    (Washington)
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • North Dakota
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Dakota
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Nearly 70 percent of land in the U.S. is in private ownership—a number that’s even higher in much of pheasant and bobwhite quail country.The more we can work with private land stewards for the betterment of natural resources, the brighter the future will be for wild things and wild places. If you are a proponent of public lands, we invite you to try hunting andrecreating on VPA-HIP land and to keep fighting for publicly-accessible lands with improved wildlife habitat.

 

From the good news desk: Sportsmen, farmers and feds team up on local solutions that make healthy watersheds

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced close to $800 million in federal funding for locally led solutions to regional conservation challenges via its Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The five-year, $1.2 billion federal program was authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill to award funds to projects that improve soil health, water quality, water use efficiency, and wildlife habitat, as well as activities that otherwise support natural resources on private lands. In 2015, USDA has awarded $370 million to 115 high-impact projects across all 50 states and Puerto Rico, which will be bolstered by approximately $400 million from stakeholders. TRCP is a proud partner of the following 2015 RCPP project leads: Ducks Unlimited, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and Trout Unlimited.

To read more about RCPP projects improving working lands and wildlife habitat, click here.

Image by Michael Misurek.

Water is deeply personal. We tend to take it for granted until something happens to the water we drink or fish in. Even when a chemical spill shut off water to hundreds of thousands of West Virginians, most of us probably looked at it as a tragic news story rather than as motivation to examine whether our drinking water source is vulnerable, if our favorite trout stream is impaired or if our local wetland is at risk of destruction.

That’s why solutions to our water challenges are most successful when driven by local participation: those closest to the water know it best and have the greatest interest in fixing it the right way. However, because local leaders often do not have sufficient financial or technical resources available, locally-driven solutions work best when integrated with resources from a variety of stakeholders, including federal agencies.

Recognizing this federal role in water conservation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture just announced nearly $800 million in funding through its Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) for 115 locally-led solutions to regional conservation challenges. This effort will take $370 million in federal funds and match it with $400 million in funds committed by project partners. Many of these projects will be led by sportsmen’s organizations working together with local farmers and ranchers to protect our working landscapes and fish and wildlife habitat.

The Verde River in Arizona. Image courtesy of the National Wild and Scenic River System.

Take, for instance, the Verde River Flow and Habitat Restoration Initiative led by TRCP partner The Nature Conservancy (TNC). With $2.8 million in support from RCPP, The Nature Conservancy and five other partners in the Verde River Valley of Arizona will improve irrigation water management and irrigation water delivery on 1,000 acres of working lands, enhance 6,000 acres of riparian habitat, and protect 400 acres of agricultural lands through conservation easements over five years. Easements will be focused on lands that already have significant investment in on-farm conservation practices and are critical to ensure long-term investments are protected. TNC has been working in the Verde Valley for three years already to improve water conveyance infrastructure; now, their efforts will be supercharged with a greater on-farm focus.

As another example, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, along with 31 partners, is receiving $8 million from RCPP to modernize water management for agricultural uses in the Lower Gunnison River Basin. Many local efforts are underway already to improve conveyance and delivery of water as well as improve on-farm irrigation practices. With this grant, project participants will be able to integrate limited, disparate efforts under a coordinated leadership team, including local producers, to achieve greater water efficiency results and multiply environmental benefits. In addition, the partners will target areas with high selenium levels to reduce pollutant levels in the basin, producing water quality as well as water quantity benefits. This project will accelerate progress towards water users’ common goal: utilizing water resources wisely while ensuring healthy fish and wildlife populations and agricultural sustainability.

Both of these examples are localized so it may not be obvious why this new federal effort is so important to anyone outside the chosen project areas. But there are at least two reasons why we all should take note of this new conservation program. First, though the most direct benefits of river and habitat improvements will be felt in the project areas, these benefits accrue downstream, whether it’s through more water being left in the river for fish or fewer pollutants entering the watershed. Second, this model of locally-driven solutions coupled with broad stakeholder support should set the tone for conservation in the future, and the novel solutions it will produce will be replicated nationwide. Even if your favorite hunting and fishing grounds didn’t benefit from this first round of projects selected, the lessons learned from them should be coming to a watershed near you soon.

Want more on RCPP? Check out this handy USDA infographic here.