Lack of access is one of the biggest issues facing sportsmen and women today and is reported as the number one reason (over which state agencies have control) that lapsed hunters and anglers cite when asked why they no longer hunt or fish. In an attempt to address this issue, land access programs have been created in 26 states, many of which are funded through the Farm Bill’s Voluntary Public Access – Habitat Incentives Program (VPA-HIP), to provide incentives to private landowners who open their land for hunters and anglers. Incentives include tax breaks, discounted hunting and angling licenses, and reduced liability for incidents on their land involving sportsmen.
Access is one of the biggest issues facing sportsmen today and is said to be the number one reason that lapsed hunters and anglers cite when asked why they no longer participate in hunting or fishing. In an attempt to address this issue, a number of states, particularly those with significant amount of lands held in private ownership, have created public access programs to provide incentives to private landowners who open up their land for public hunting or fishing. The purpose of these programs is to increase the acreage available to hunters and anglers, which helps with recruiting, reactivating, and retaining sportsmen. Additional benefits include providing an economic boost to rural communities, strengthening ties between rural and urban communities, and increasing opportunities for technical assistance for fish and wildlife management on private lands.
Following the success of the “Walk-In Hunter Access” program in Kansas, the issue was first presented to the National Association of Sportsmen’s Caucuses (NASC) at the 2006 NASC Annual Summit by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, & Tourism. Established in 1995, the “Walk-In Hunter Access” program has opened more than a million acres of private land to public hunting by 2004. The Fishing Impoundments & Stream Habitats (F.I.S.H.) Program, which was added in 1998, increased access to streams, rivers, and lakes across the state. Kansas’s public access to private lands programs have received remarkable feedback, and Kansas is not alone. Other programs have received positive feedback as well, including North Dakota’s Private Land Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) Program. In a survey conducted by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, hunters and landowners reported high satisfaction rates with PLOTS.
Points of Interest
- Many programs are administratively created by state fish and wildlife agencies and may be supported by Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act funds; additional stamps or permits have also been created to generate funds.
- Landowners generally maintain control of their property and hunting is typically regulated to foot traffic only.
- Several states have adopted programs designed to provide public access to private lands for hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation, including Pennsylvania. Currently, more than 13,000 landowners and tenants are participating in Pennsylvania’s Hunter Access Program. The properties span across most of the 67 counties, opening up nearly 2.2 million acres for public access.
- The 2018 Farm Bill (Public Law 115-334) re-authorized the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP), formerly called Open Fields. VPA-HIP incentivizes owners and operators of privately held farm, ranch, and forest land to voluntarily give hunters, fishermen, hikers, bird watchers, and other recreational outdoor enthusiasts’ access to land for their enjoyment. Funding for VPA-HIP increased to $50 million under the 2018 Farm Bill from $40 million under the 2014 Farm Bill.
- In February 2020, the USDA awarded $49 million to state and tribal governments through VPA-HIP. This included the maximum award amount of $3 million granted to both the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
- VPA-HIP, as authorized by Congress in the Farm Bill, has increased opportunities for hunting, fishing, and wildlife-dependent recreation on private land and has created a nearly one hundred percent economic return on the initial investment by taxpayers to rural communities.
- The Access and Habitat (A&H) Program in Oregon has provided hunting access to nearly 8 million acres of land. 90% of this territory is comprised of private land reserved for public hunting access.
Legislation and regulations should be reviewed to ensure liability standards for landowners do not discourage participation in public access to private lands programs:
- Arkansas – A.C.A. § 18-11-304: “An act to encourage a landowner to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes; to limit the liability of a landowner who allows the public to use the landowner’s property for recreational purposes; and for other purposes.”
Conservation tax incentives and real property taxation valuation programs can be used to encourage public access:
- Alaska Statute 29.45.050 (e): “A municipality may by ordinance exempt from taxation privately owned land, wet land and water areas for which a scenic, conservation, or public recreation use easement is granted to a governmental body.”
With the extraordinary success of public access to private lands programs and legislation in a number of states, it is advisable that legislators and citizens support and advance options that would open additional land to the public for sportsmen and women. The demand for places to hunt will increase as the U.S. population grows and more lands are developed. Thus, public access to private land programs will be increasingly important for providing access for sportsmen and women. The availability of land for recreational use is critical to supporting our sporting heritage.