USDA Announces Program to Expand Use of Private Land

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new effort to encourage owners and operators of privately held farm, ranch, and forest land to voluntarily provide public access to their land for outdoor recreation activities, including horseback riding.

"This would be open to all outdoor recreational opportunities," Vilsack said, describing those possibly benefiting as hunters, anglers, horseback riders, hikers, bird watchers, mountain bikers, and canoers.

The new program, called the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP), will provide up to $50 million in competitive grants to state and tribal governments to expand existing public access programs or to create new public access programs. In addition, the funds can be used to provide incentives to improve wildlife habitat on enrolled lands.

Deb Balliet, chief executive officer of the Equine Land Conservation Resource, said the ELCR supports the new program. "Horsemen across the nation enjoy viewing and photographing wildlife and, where legal, hunting from horseback. The growing community of equestrians are seeking additional recreational and trail riding spaces. We think it especially important that programs such as this reach out to a multitude of recreationists."

"The demand for accessible private lands for wildlife viewing by horseback is increasing while public dollars are scarce," the ELCR said in a statement. "We believe government programs such as VPA-HIP should provide the greatest good to the greatest number of wildlife interested recreationist."

One concern held by landowners is that the public might become careless and introduce noxious weeds onto their pastures or leave gates open, etc. Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation partnership (TRCP) said the program will expand public access while respecting private property rights. He added that if land owners experience a problem they should work with local or state officials or a conservation group to rectify the issue.

"When one bad egg does something wrong, it shuts down access for everybody," he said.

A recent USDA report showed that visitors spend $13 billion directly in communities within 50 miles of national forests or grasslands. Those dollars spent within local communities generate another $14.5 billion in economic activity, sustaining 223,000 jobs, according to Vilsack. An additional $32 billion is generated by recreational use of horses, according to an American Horse Council Survey.

"We believe that encouraging outdoor recreation will play a critical role in that effort to revitalize the rural economy," said Vilsack.

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About the Author

Marie Rosenthal, MS

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