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Farmers Urged To Open Lands Under Open Fields

posted on July 16, 2010


SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — In wildlife-rich South Dakota, opening up more private land to public recreation — namely hunting and fishing — would seem to be a slam-dunk for attracting new tourism dollars to the state.

But while a new federal program hopes to encourage landowners to expand recreational opportunities, some balk, saying liability issues and noncompetitive rental rates on existing conservation acres make opening up more lands less appealing.

Last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, which provides money to farmers and ranchers to provide recreation access. About $50 million in grants is available for state and tribal governments. The so-called "Open Fields" program was created in the 2008 farm bill.

"It's something we're definitely looking into. We think it's a pretty good fit to the access programs we already have in South Dakota," said Mark Norton, the state Game, Fish and Parks Department's access and farm bill coordinator. "It's brand new, so we're still trying to figure out how best to apply for it. We're just going to look to use that money, if we get it, to increase access for the sportsman."

South Dakota already has about 4 million acres open to hunting. The acres are split between federal lands and property owned or managed by the GF&P.

One of the most popular private/public access programs is the Walk-In Program, which has 900,000 acres enrolled, according to GF&P figures. It would be the logical benefactor of Open Fields, Norton said.

The state pays landowners up to $1 an acre a year for access, plus a bonus payment of up to $5 an acre a year for permanent, undisturbed cover in the state's prime pheasant hunting areas. Landowners also can get an additional one-time bonus of up to $1 an acre for each hunting season remaining on their federal Conservation Reserve Program contract if they enroll their CRP land as a Walk-In Area for the length of the CRP contract.

In those areas, liability isn't an issue, Norton said.

"There's a state statute that provides liability coverage to anybody who opens up their land to free public access," he said. "I guess it gives them enough liability protection as you can give on a state level."

"Yeah, but what happens if a guy wanders off those acres and gets hurt on private land?" said Paul Brandt of Clear Lake, who raises corn and soybeans and feeds cattle and hogs in Deuel County. "There's not a lot of clear boundaries. I have a hard time finding them, and that's a concern."

Existing conservation payments also are a concern, farmers and ranchers said. CRP pays a national average of $53 an acre, but some South Dakota producers receive much less.

Combine that with higher commodity prices and a yearning for land among younger farmers, and many agribusinessmen are looking at their conservation acres with a new eye toward the bottom line — especially since GF&P officials are unsure what an Open Fields grant would pay landowners per acre for access rights.

"It does increase wildlife in South Dakota, but on the flip side, if this is like CRP and you take areas out of production, that's a bad deal," Brandt said. "I have no problem with the increased wildlife, but I continue to do the math."

Open Fields directs the USDA to bolster existing state- and tribal-based programs that allow sportsmen to access private lands for recreation, USDA spokeswoman Isabel Benemelis said. The USDA provides the money, but states and tribes would continue to manage the lands.

"These acres must continue to fulfill the requirements of the CRP contract," she said. "(Open Fields) does not require that land enrolled in the program cannot be used for agricultural production."

Twenty-six states have public access programs for hunting, fishing and other related activities. The grants also can be used by states to create access programs.

Open Fields will be a boon for South Dakota, said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

"This bill expands the already successful hunter Walk-In Program in South Dakota and in other states," Thune said. "As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I also inserted a provision into the farm bill which grants South Dakota a higher priority when funds are awarded, because the state advertises the location of its Walk-In areas."

Agritourism and recreation pursuits can be big business on farms and ranches, Vilsack said. According to the 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture, 23,350 farm and ranch owners said they provided agritourism and recreation services that are valued at $566 million. Of the total number of farms, 3,637 indicated gross farm receipts of $25,000 or more.

While last year's pheasant hunting tourism figures have yet to be released, the 2008 season brought $219 million into the state.

"It has become harder and harder over the years for citizens to access hunting opportunities given the decrease in open space," said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who supported the legislation. "This program will empower states to promote increased access to hunting and outdoor recreation, which will be beneficial not only to landowners and hunters, but for South Dakota's economy as well."

Farm Services Administrator Jonathan Coppess said the first round of grants worth $17 million could be awarded by mid-September.

Conservation groups, including Pheasants Forever and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, praised the announcement.

"This is an unqualified victory for fish and wildlife conservation and our hunting and fishing traditions," said Whit Fosburgh, president and chief operating officer of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.


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