Wichita The Agriculture Department launched a program Thursday aimed at stimulating rural economies by encouraging landowners to provide public access to their properties for recreational use in exchange for money.
The Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, announced by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during a telephone news conference and authorized under the 2008 Farm Bill, offers state and tribal governments up to $50 million in grants through 2012 to expand or create public access programs and provide incentives for improving wildlife habitat on enrolled lands.
Vilsack told reporters that President Barack Obama and the Agriculture Department are committed to generating economic opportunities in rural communities to build a stronger future for rural America.
"We believe that encouraging outdoor recreation will play a very critical role in that effort to revitalize the rural economy — hunting, fishing, hiking and other outdoor recreational activities in landscapes located in rural communities represent a real opportunity to stimulate rural economies," Vilsack said.
He cited a newly released report showing that $13 billion in spending by visitors is directly pumped into communities within 50 miles of a national forest or grassland, money that is circulated within those communities to sustain 223,000 jobs.
The numbers of hunters and fishermen have been declining, and the reason most commonly cited is a lack of access or overcrowding, said Whit Fosburgh, president and chief executive officer for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
"Seventy-seven percent of the nations' hunters hunt on private land, but across the nation hunters have seen private lands posted or disappear as hunting grounds either because of expanding subdivision or the fact that private landowners simply decide to keep hunters away," Fosburgh said.
Twenty-six states now have public access programs for hunting, fishing and other activities. The majority of those existing state programs have limited scope and budgets, especially in these tough economic times, Vilsack said.
The federal program will provide those states with an enhanced opportunity to address public access on private land and develop wildlife habitat on them, said Keith Sexson, assistant secretary of wildlife operations for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
"As a state that is over 97 percent privately owned, Kansas has been aware of the critical need for public access to private lands for recreational purposes for many years," Sexson said.
Kansas has more than 1 million acres enrolled and has agreements with 2,200 landowners to provide access.
Sexson said that with the announcement of the Agriculture Program, the state planned to apply and use the funding to expand access in the state — particularly with private landowners close to the state's urban areas.
"States have been looking forward to this day," he said.