Marshall: How The "Open Fields" Bill will Get You More Land to Hunt and Fish

Notice to sportsmen who feel locked out of quality private hunting and fishing lands: Your state has 45 days to change that, courtesy of a $50 million incentive from America's taxpayers. The program is called Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, a feature of the 2008 Farm Bill known as "Open Fields." It provides $50 million for states to purchase public access for outdoor recreation on private lands.

The program is the culmination of a long drive by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership to address what research has long shown is major cause for the decline in hunting and fishing participation: Lack of access.

But the opportunities won't come your way unless your state has a private lands initiative and submits a grant application to the USDA during the 45-day window that wins approval. Currently, only 26 states have such programs.

The agency said priority to grants that stressed these objectives:

• Maximize participation by landowners.

• Ensure that land enrolled in the program has appropriate wildlife habitat.

• Provide incentives to strengthen wildlife habitat improvement efforts on Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) land, if available.

• Supplement funding and services from other federal, state, tribal government, or private resources that are provided in the form of cash or in-kind services.

• Provide information to the public about the location of public access land.

The USDA also said a state's grant amount will be reduced by 25 percent if opening dates for migratory bird hunting in the state are not consistent for residents and non-residents. In an interview with Field & Stream, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he expects the bidding process to be very competitive.

"I think we will get a good response to this, because states are interested," he said. "They understand the power economically (of outdoor recreation), and we anticipate a robust round of applications."

Those economic benefits are important in a depressed economy. Open Fields won congressional approval because supporters stressed its investment in improving the economies of rural areas. Vilsack pointed out that studies showed communities near national forests and grasslands--both managed by his agency--saw $14 billion in economic activity generated directly by people traveling to or through those national properties for recreation.

"There was $27 billion in economic activity because of hikers, bikers, hunters, and anglers through and around national forests and grasslands," Vilsack said, adding that Open Fields is an effort to stimulate the same type of economic opportunities around private lands. Private lands initiative is an idea that has been struggling for decades. The two largest impediments have been getting legal immunity for landowners against liability for injuries that might take place on their property, and finding funding sources that make participation worthwhile. Supporters of Open Fields hope the $50 million investment will show non-participating states that there is a future for the idea.

Vilsack said grants can also be used by states with existing programs to mount advertising campaigns to recruit property owners and to let sportsmen know about the opportunities. More information on the program can be found at www.usda.gov. Grant applications can be found at www.grants.gov/