Public Lands & Waters photo

The future of public outdoors sports has always depended on two indispensible elements: habitat and access.

Without abundant habitat, there won’t be fish and wildlife in numbers large enough to support public hunting and fishing.

But adequate habitat doesn’t help public sportsmen unless they have access to it.

That’s why outdoors sportsmen and the industries that rely on them were smiling last week when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $20 million disbursement this fiscal year to the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Improvement Program (VPA-HIP), part of the 2014 Farm Bill. The title tells you it hits both of those indispensable elements.

Access to public hunting and fishing areas has long topped the list of reasons wanna-be sportsmen give for not pursuing those sports – or dropping out. VIC-HIP was designed to offer some remedy to that problem. Even during this era of tight budgets congress has seen the wisdom of helping support and expand an industry that studies have shown supports 6.1 million direct jobs, $80 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenue, and $646 billion in spending each year.

States and tribal governments apply in a competitive bid program for block grants it can then dispense to private owners of forest, farm and ranch lands willing to open them to public recreation. That includes activities like hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, bird watching – the whole menu of sports that require access to fish and wildlife habitat.

The grants can be used to expand exiting public access program, or to start new ones – as long as they are on privately owned lands. That way the habitat base for outdoor sports grows – without government purchasing fee title to new property.

The USDA said priority would be given to applications that meet the following criteria:

·Increase private land acreage available for public use;

·Offer a public access program that gains widespread acceptance among landowners;

·Make special efforts to reach historically underserved or socially disadvantaged landowners;

·Ensure appropriate wildlife habitat is located on enrolled land;

·Strengthen existing wildlife habitat improvement efforts;

·Follow NRCS conservation practice standards for VPA-HIP habitat improvement activities; and;

·Inform the public about the locations of existing and new lands where public access is available.

States winning grants so far have included California, Georgia, Hawaii, Montana, New Hampshire, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming join Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin as states participating in the program. Also participating are the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.

Last year’s winners show the scope and diversity of the program

Grantee Grant Amount Recreation Opportunities Provided Acres Added People Benefitted
Arizona Game and Fish Department $2,194,400 The Arizona agency plans to expand its current public access program with this grant by working with more landowners through incentive payments, hiring additional staff and boosting outreach efforts. 2,000,000 10,100
Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation $131,200 The tribal government will use the grant to finish its wildlife viewing center the tribe started with a previous grant, opening access to 8,500 acres of private land and 12,500 acres of tribal lands for hiking, bird watching and photography. 21,000 3,000
Georgia Department of Natural Resources $993,664 In a state where 93 percent of land is privately owned, the Georgia agency plans will use the grant to expand its successful Wildlife Management Area program, which makes private lands available to those interested in hunting, fishing and other recreation. 15,000-20,000 5,000
Illinois Department of Natural Resources $1,744,000 Illinois plans to expand its current public access program, which has already provided public access to hundreds of areas for turkey hunting, hiking and rafting. 13,000 3,000
Iowa Department of Natural Resources $3,000,000 The Iowa agency will provide conservation assistance to landowners, enhancing 22,000 acres of wildlife habitat and opening that area to the public for hunting. 22,000 50,000
Michigan Department of Natural Resources $1,229,250 The Michigan agency will use the grant to grow the state’s existing hunting access program by adding dozens of farms to its system, boosting acreage by about 8,000 acres. 24,000 9,000
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks $491,260 In a state with the highest per capita hunters and anglers, the Montana agency plans to work with 150 private landowners to open access up to 48,000 acres for hunting, fishing and other recreational activities. 24,000-48,000 12,150
Pennsylvania Game Commission $6,000,000 The Pennsylvania agency will use the grant to grow its existing public access program with a goal of making land available for recreation while also helping at-risk species like the golden wing warbler and bog turtle. 300,000 766,000
South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks $1,505,500 The South Dakota agency aims to increase public access to private lands in the southeastern portion of the state, where little land to lease is available, for hunting and recreation as well as improve wildlife habitat. 50,000 500
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department $2,245,200 The Texas agency is working to increase land available and participation in hunting as well as wildlife populations by using the grant funds and other matching dollars to hire biologists, to work with additional private landowners to make lands available and increase public awareness of available lands. 20,000 72,000

USDA’s 60-day application period started Feb. 23 and runs through April 24, 2015. Applications must be filled through