Devon Richards wasn’t sure he wanted to open his Kansas farm to unfamiliar hunters. A hardcore deer and quail hunter, Richards didn’t think his family’s place had enough room or quality bucks. But after enrolling in the state’s Walk-In Hunting Access program, funded largely by the 2018 federal Farm Bill, he shot a great buck and the access payments helped keep his family on their farm.
The Richards family is one of nearly 700 landowners around the country who opened their farms or ranches to some amount of public hunting over the past two years. They didn’t do it for charity or for the warm feeling they get by seeing folks enjoy their land. They’re doing it, at least in part, for the payment they receive.
The funds come from a $50 million pool of federal money earmarked to “help create or expand programs that encourage landowners and land managers to allow public access to their land for hunting, fishing, and other wildlife-dependent recreation,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), whose Natural Resources Conservation Service is responsible for distributing funds to eligible state and tribal wildlife programs.
As with most federal programs, this one has a clunky name: the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. If that doesn’t roll off your tongue, you can call it the VPA-HIP. Either way, it’s probably a key, and largely unknown, component of your state’s hunting-access program. According to the USDA, the impetus for the funding is declining recreational access and wildlife-habitat work on private land, which makes up 70 percent of America’s real estate.
It’s not the first time federal Farm Bill funds have been used to open gates. The preceding Farm Bill, in 2014, allocated some $40 million to pay landowners who allowed some measure of public access. But the 2018 effort specifically incentivized habitat work and boosted payments to farmers who agree to both provide access and to improve wildlife habitat.
So a couple years in, it’s fair to ask how is the program working? Are sportsmen and landowners finding some mutual benefit? In general, the answer is yes. States with established private-land access programs have found ways to fold the new funds into existing programs. Others have struggled.
Oregon’s Open Fields program uses these Farm Bill bucks to pay landowners in the fertile Willamette Valley to open their land to goose hunting. The access is narrowly defined, the resource is abundant, and the need for additional public access is keen. But the program has struggled to find and keep landowners, who worry about the spread of noxious weeds from out-of-area hunters as well as the unregulated number of hunters who might participate in the program. The program has fallen short of its goals.
However, Kansas has found good success linking VPA-HIP funds to existing Walk-In Hunting Access contracts.
“We’re using the Farm Bill funds to encourage signups in the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program,” said Daryl Fisher with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism. “VPA-HIP will match the Farm Service Agency signup incentive of $100 per acre, as well as pay a fee for public hunting access for the duration of the CCRP contract.”
What’s more, the entire payment for the VPA-HIP contract can be paid up front. That’s good news for producers who are facing bankers’ requests to deliver cash in hand rather than the promise of future payments.
But the best news is for America’s hunters, who have tens of thousands of acres of highly productive wildlife habitat to hunt, thanks to the USDA. Will the access program continue? We’ll see when the next five-year Farm Bill rolls around in 2023.