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Habitat & Access: What Sportsmen Gain, or Lose, with 2023 Farm Bill

The next federal Farm Bill will establish terms and scale of conservation and private-land access.

Habitat & Access: What Sportsmen Gain, or Lose, with 2023 Farm Bill

The amount of funding for the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, which many states use to support walk-in hunting areas on farms and other private lands, will be decided in passage of the 2023 Farm Bill. (Shutterstock image)

The federal Farm Bill, reauthorized by Congress every five years, is the most important piece of legislation that most of us ignore. That’s because the $1.4 trillion bill, which influences everything from public-school lunches to disaster payments for drought-crippled corn farmers, is dense, complicated and so full of acronyms that it’s hard to know whether you should support ACEP, VPA-HIP or EQIP.

Happily, folks far more familiar with the process and details are watching the development of the 2023 Farm Bill with an eye for what it can deliver to America’s hunters, anglers and outdoor recreationists. Folks like Jim Ingles, director of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever.

"Depending on what part of the country you live in, or whether you are a farmer or a hunter, you’re going to hear about, and be affected by, this legislation," says Ingles, whose job is to ensure that conservation provisions of the sprawling legislation are preserved or even increased in order to affect things like clean water, healthy wildlife habitat and expanded access. Those conservation titles, which amount to just 7 percent of the federal funds distributed by the bill, include items such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that pays farmers to keep marginal cropland in bird-boosting cover and the clumsily named Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP) that creates hunting access on farmlands.

The 2018 bill expires on Sept. 30, which means Congress will be pushing to get the next Farm Bill completed and signed by Oct. 1. Ingles says that most sportsmen and -women can look beyond the biggest-ticket items that fund the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the billions of dollars in price supports and crop insurance.

"Habitat and access, that’s what we boil it down to," he says. "There’s a lot at stake in those two categories. Programs like CRP and EQIP [Environmental Quality Incentive Program] affect tens of millions of acres of wildlife habitat across America. And if we don’t get VPA-HIP funded, hunters could lose popular walk-in hunting programs across the country."

The longest-running conservation program in the Farm Bill is CRP, which could be called America’s grass bank, intended to keep soil from washing and blowing away. All the cover planted in place of crops is a boon to ground-nesting birds, including waterfowl and upland species, and since CRP was authorized in the 1985 Farm Bill, it’s also raised a lot of whitetails and non-game species. But we’re a long way below the high-water mark of 37 million acres of CRP contracted in 2007, an era defined by low commodity prices. Grain prices are currently spiking because of the war in Ukraine and global weather events, which means it will be a fight to get CRP acres back to those historic highs.

“We’d like to see CRP restored to high levels, but we can’t go to Congress right now and ask for 40 million acres,” says Ingles. “That would be expensive and a non-starter in a Congress that’s losing its appetite for big public expenditures. So we’re going to ask for as many acres as possible, but with management flexibility that makes it appealing to landowners looking for alternatives to row crops that can make their operations more resilient during these wide swings in weather events that they’ve been experiencing. We think it makes sense to talk about CRP as both an ecological and economic safety net for producers.”

The VPA-HIP was created in the 2008 Farm Bill to provide grants to state fish-and-wildlife agencies to allow public hunting, fishing and wildlife-related recreation on private land. Many administer the program as walk-in hunting initiatives, which have created millions of hunter days on hundreds of thousands of acres.

"If you hunt walk-in areas in your state, you are benefitting from VPA-HIP," Ingles says. "If funding goes away or gets reduced, it’s going to remove a lot of hunting access."

The 2018 Farm Bill approved $50 million in access grants to states and tribes, and this time around advocates are asking for $150 million to provide even more private-land access for hunters. Ingles notes that acres enrolled in VPA-HIP projects are good for landowners, who get an incentive payment for voluntarily allowing access and for improving wildlife habitat. It’s also good for recreationists, who can access high-quality habitat for not only hunting, but also fishing and other outdoor activities like bird watching.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which is leading a coalition of conservation groups on a unified approach to Farm Bill priorities, notes that economic analysis of private-land access "shows a huge return on investment while expanding hunting opportunities." That’s an appealing pitch to not only Congress, but also landowners, rural communities, state agencies and even the sporting goods industry—all groups that have skin in this year’s Farm Bill game.




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