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Published July 11, 2010, 12:00 AM

Hunter access highlights federal 'Open Fields' program

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made the announcement Thursday afternoon at a national press conference that included Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever, and Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

By: Herald Staff Report,

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday announced it was releasing $50 million in funding for the “Open Fields” program that rewards landowners who provide access for activities such as hunting and fishing.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made the announcement Thursday afternoon at a national press conference that included Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever, and Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

“This administration is committed to preserving and enhancing the great conservation legacy of our nation’s hunters and anglers to benefit current and future generations,” Vilsack said. “This program will not only help achieve conservation goals, but also increase opportunities for hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation by providing greater access to privately held lands for wildlife-dependent recreation.”

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., applauded Thursday’s announcement. Conrad first introduced legislation to establish the program in 2003 with Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

“This program is a win-win situation for everyone,” Conrad said. “The farmers and ranchers who voluntarily enroll their land get an incentive payment. Hunters, fishermen and birders find more land available to enjoy the outdoors, and our rural communities get a tremendous economic shot in the arm.”

How it works

Open Fields directs USDA to back existing state-based programs supporting landowners who make their lands accessible for public access. The federal government would help provide funding, but the states would continue to manage the programs.

As a result of Thursday’s announcement, Open Fields funding now can be used to enhance the 26 existing state public access programs — including the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s popular Private Lands Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) program — and establish similar initiatives in states where such programs are currently absent.

There will be an application process for states to apply for funding.

Randy Kreil, wildlife division chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, said the department will be submitting an application for some of the funds. Because of the department’s success with the PLOTS program, Kreil said Game and Fish also will serve as a “mentor” state for those that don’t already have private land habitat and access programs in place.

“We will be providing them advice and guidance on how to develop similar programs in their states,” Kreil said.

Farm bill roots

Congress first authorized Open Fields in the 2008 farm bill. But while the initiative enjoyed broad bipartisan support, it wasn’t until Thursday that the program was put into practice. A broad list of sportsmen’s, conservation and farming groups have been frustrated by USDA’s delays in finalizing the regulations.

Groups ranging from the National Rifle Association to Ducks Unlimited, the National Farmers Union and Pheasants Forever have embraced Open Fields.

Vincent, the Pheasants Forever CEO, praised the program on both its wildlife habitat and hunter access merits.

“We appreciate the federal government’s willingness to expand public access to hunting and other recreational activities by assuring its implementation,” Vincent said. “Sportsmen now speak together in urging our nation’s decision makers to continue this record of support by retaining and funding farm bill conservation programs in 2012.”

Fosburgh of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership called Thursday’s announcement “an unqualified victory for fish and wildlife conservation and our hunting and fishing traditions.”

Nearly 100 million Americans participate in wildlife-related recreation annually, spending in excess of $100 billion each year on their outdoor activities.

Outdoor recreation is worth nearly $1 billion annually in North Dakota alone, and Conrad noted that Open Fields should create an opportunity to further boost the state’s nature-based industries.

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