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.

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.

Remembering Jim Range – and his dogs

Image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

Fall means many things to sportsmen – elk in the Missouri Breaks, whitetails in the hardwood forests of Pennsylvania, ringnecks in South Dakota.

For many of us at the TRCP, fall brings to mind Jim Range – and his dogs.

TRCP’s co-founder and visionary, Jim was known and beloved by so many. A lifelong sportsman who served as chief counsel to Sen. Howard Baker during the years when the senator was majority leader, Range played a critical role in advancing some of the nation’s most important natural resources legislation, including the Clean Water Act.

Defined by his passions, Jim was a consummate leader and bridge builder, as well as an enthusiastic hunter of birds and big game and a devoted trout fisherman. His capacity for seeing past differences and finding the common ground among diverse interests, both within the sportsmen’s community and outside it, set the course for the TRCP and our mission.

Jim Range harbored a particular love of upland hunting, and the sharp-tailed grouse held a special place in his heart. Bob St. Pierre, vice president of communications for Pheasants Forever, recalls Jim saying while on a hunt, “I love everything about these birds. The environs where they live, the way they flush and laugh at you as they fly away. I love the taste of their meat, the simple beauty of each feather, their fur-covered feet, and the rose hips all around. I love everything about these darned sharpies.”

Like all upland hunters, Jim was especially fond of his dogs. They featured prominently in his life and his stories, and they served as cherished companions, friends and foils. Plague, Tench, Jambo and Sky are familiar to so many who knew him.

Jim died in 2009 – far too young, following a short battle with cancer – but his legacy lives on. And so do his dogs. The TRCP recently received word that Sky, Jim’s German wirehair, continues to chase birds every chance he gets. Taken in by John Neel Range, Jim’s brother, Sky travels as far afield as eastern Montana on occasion, where he spent some time last month hunting there with John, his son Jake, and Jake’s black Lab Jambo. (The Range family tradition of naming dogs continues.)

Sky on a trip to Montana. Image courtesy of the Range family.

“Sky spends a lot of time at our farm in Tennessee,” said Carol Walker Range, John’s wife. “He’s become an Eastern grouse dog most of the time, although he does a pretty good job at our annual dove hunt.”

We at the TRCP think Jim would be glad to hear it.

In addition to his leadership of the TRCP, Jim Range served on the boards of Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, the Wetlands America Trust, the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation, the American Sportfishing Association, the American Bird Conservancy, the Pacific Forest Trust, the Yellowstone Park Foundation, and the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust. Read more about Jim Range and the fund established in his name, the Jim Range Conservation Fund.

Wednesday Win: Photo Caption

For this week’s “Wednesday Win,” we’re going back to our roots. Leave a comment on the blow photo of TRCP’s co-founder and compass, Jim Range, and we’ll pick our favorite on Friday. The winner will receive a TRCP camo hat.

Photo by Steve Belinda.

Remembering Dr. James ‘Bud’ Range

Anyone who’s been around the TRCP for a while has heard about Jim Range. Jim is thought of as the primary founder of the TRCP, and while many individuals contributed to the organization’s foundation, Jim had the strategic vision and extraordinary passion that remain at the heart of the organization to this day.

Jim’s instincts for the necessity of the TRCP for American sportsmen have proven to be 100 percent on target in the ten years since he led the way in launching the sportsmen-conservation organization. He was a brilliant strategist and known widely in Republican and Democratic circles in Washington, D.C., as one of the best brains in town. He could walk up to a legislative problem, measure it up and down, cut to a diagnosis and course of treatment without a lot of fancy talk.

Like a country doctor looking over a sick kid, Jim worked as quickly as anyone I’ve ever seen and the solutions he prescribed were always nonpartisan in nature. If you knew Jim’s dad, there was no great mystery as to how he came by this gift.

Jim’s dad, Dr. James J. Range, passed away in early October. “Bud” as his friends knew him, was 94 years old. Unlike Jim, who passed away three years ago at the age of 63, Dr. Range lived the kind of long, full life he deserved. I was fortunate enough to get to know Dr. Range as were many of Jim’s friends and while their outward personalities were markedly different, Jim took after his dad in many ways.

In the mountains of Tennessee around Johnson City, Jim gained a deep appreciation of the outdoors from his dad and it set him on a professional path that would see him become one of the most important sportsmen-conservation advocates of his generation. Jim took traits and smarts learned from his father and applied them to the political arena where he worked to heal divisions that threatened to forfeit American’s great natural resources and the outdoor way of life.

I mostly spent time with Dr. Range out at Jim’s place in Montana. Jim was such a huge personality and such a giant in the political and conservation arenas and it was fascinating to get to know the man who had, along with Jim’s mother, unleashed this whirlwind on all of us. Dr. Range was a warm wonderful person and it clicked for me right away – how this mellow and methodical doctor was connected to his colorful son. They both loved hunting and fishing and the outdoors deep down in their hearts and they both cared so much about other people.

So today I’ll just say thanks to Jim one more time for all he did for me as a friend and for all he did for this country’s sportsmen. And I’ll say thank you to Dr. Range for spending part of his long wonderful life raising such a fine son. We miss you both.

This article was written by TRCP board member George Cooper.