WASHINGTON – The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership today praised a decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to release funding for the “Open Fields” Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, a new effort to encourage owners and operators of privately held farm, ranch and forest lands to provide public access to their lands for wildlife-dependent activities such as hunting and fishing.

Open Fields was authorized by Congress for the first time in the 2008 Farm Bill following tenacious support by members of a TRCP-sponsored coalition. The sportsmen-conservation group has been frustrated by delays in the USDA finalizing the regulations but is optimistic that the program now can be implemented expeditiously so sportsmen and landowners can benefit beginning this year.20100503_fp_logo

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made the announcement this afternoon at a national press conference, at which other speakers included representatives from the TRCP, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and Pheasants Forever.

“Open Fields is the first federal landowner incentive program of its kind to enhance access for hunting and fishing – and has been a flagship issue for the TRCP since our group’s inception,” said TRCP President and CEO Whit Fosburgh, who spoke at the event. “Today’s announcement by the federal government is an unqualified victory for fish and wildlife conservation and our hunting and fishing traditions.

“America’s union sportsmen, led by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, endorsed the Open Fields hunter-access program,” Fosburgh continued. “Many national unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO joined together to push for Open Fields, as did scores of rank-and-file union members from across the country. They have seen the declines in sporting opportunities in their backyards and did something about it.”

Open Fields provides states $50 million in federal monies to create or enhance voluntary hunter-access programs on private lands and encourages landowners who enroll their properties to employ best-management practices for fish and wildlife. Landowners can receive a financial incentive in exchange for opening lands to the public for hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreation.

“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,” said Vilsack. “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.”

“American sportsmen are deeply invested in the Open Fields program,” said Pheasants Forever National President and CEO Howard Vincent, a speaker at today’s press conference, “and we appreciate the federal government’s willingness to expand public access to hunting and other recreational activities by assuring its implementation. 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.”

The conservation title of the Farm Bill is the nation’s single-largest source of federal funding for private-lands conservation programs, and previous iterations of the bill have allocated billions of dollars toward landowner activities that sustain habitat and bolster fish and wildlife populations important to sportsmen.

Read frequently asked questions about Open Fields.

Learn more about the TRCP’s work on the Farm Bill.

Read the TRCP report “Growing Conservation in the Farm Bill.”