Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Posted: No Funding.

(This piece was first published in The Hill newspaper on November 29, 2011)

Before breaking for Thanksgiving, Congress voted to de-fund the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP) as part of the FY2012 agriculture appropriations bill. It is ironic that funding for a program that encourages landowners to make their property accessible to hunters and anglers would be eliminated just as millions of hunters nationwide prepared to hit the woods over the holiday weekend. And whether or not they hunt themselves, all Americans benefit from sportsmen’s dollars and the conservation investments provided by license sales and excise taxes, and therefore, the elimination of VPA-HIP deserves some attention.

The number one reason cited by hunters and anglers for forgoing the sports they love? Access – or rather lack of access – to quality fish and game habitat. Increasingly, sportsmen encounter “hunting prohibited” or “no trespassing” signs as they venture across the countryside.

In response to this very real challenge, the sportsmen’s community developed VPA-HIP, a federal program intended to address the problem of diminished access by sportsmen and others by providing small incentives to landowners to provide public access to their lands for wildlife-dependent activities such as hunting and fishing.

The Voluntary Public Access program was included in the 2008 Farm Bill for the first time. Federal monies were released to implement the program beginning in 2010. In just these first two years, VPA-HIP has succeeded in opening millions of acres of fish and wildlife habitat to hunters and anglers.

The economic impact of programs such as VPA-HIP that facilitate sportsmen’s access is substantial. A decline in license sales – both hunting and fishing – has severe implications for state fish and wildlife agency budgets and the continued funding of fish and wildlife habitat conservation projects that depend on sportsmen’s dollars.

In addition, sportsmen open their wallets at a range of businesses – many located in rural communities and locally owned – including motels, restaurants, sporting good stores, gas stations and guide and outfitting operations. Hunting and angling in this country, each and every year, generate more than $95 billion in economic activity.

In this era of budgetary austerity, a good-faith effort clearly must be made to reduce our nation’s debt and deficit. Sportsmen and women do not presume that they are exempt from shouldering their fair share of this burden. Yet funding for vital conservation programs should be maintained at reasonable levels, and not eliminated entirely.

Hunting and fishing have long been equal-opportunity American traditions enjoyed by anyone with a love of the outdoors. Yet Congress’s decision to eliminate the Voluntary Public Access program will effectively bar sportsmen from accessing many of our increasingly rare and precious open lands and waters. This hunting season, millions of hunters may find themselves on the wrong side of a barbed-wire fence.

In the future, Congress should restore funding to VPA-HIP and ensure the program is reauthorized as part of the next Farm Bill.

Steve Kline is the Director, Center for Agricultural Lands at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

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