The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced recently several new state-based grants to enhance sportsman access and conserve fish and wildlife habitat on privately owned lands via the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, popularly known as “Open Fields.”

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack approved eight additional states and one tribal government to participate in VPA-HIP and allocated $4.6 million in grants toward the total of $17.8 million in VPA-HIP funds obligated in 2011. Fifty million dollars in funds is available for three years through Open Fields. Many of the grants funded in 2010, the first year of the program’s implementation, were for multiple years and continue to be funded in 2011.

Following today’s announcement, prominent members of the outdoor community strongly advocated the program and its continued funding.

“More than 3.2 million AFL-CIO union members spend some of their well-deserved free time hunting and fishing, and their ability to access lands and waters is central in sustaining those activities,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a board member for Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Union sportsmen have a deep appreciation for our outdoor traditions, and continued funding for public-access programs such as Open Fields helps safeguard the future of these traditions.”

“During this fiscally challenging time, these grant monies couldnt be a better investment,” said Ron Regan, executive director of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and a TRCP board member, “and they will play a key role in expanding economically important outdoor activities such as hunting and angling, particularly in rural areas that are in critical need of economic stimulus and support.”

VPA-HIP, or Open Fields, was successfully included in the 2008 Farm Bill following the efforts of the TRCP and many TRCP partner organizations. VPA-HIP facilitates public access to private lands by augmenting existing state access programs and encouraging new walk-in programs, and it provides landowner incentives to improve fish and wildlife habitat on enrolled lands.

“Through its funding of conservation programs such as VPA-HIP, the Agriculture Department demonstrates its support of proven, on-the-ground approaches that benefit fish and wildlife and enable the public’s enjoyment of our natural resources,” said Howard Vincent, president of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever and a TRCP board member. “Sportsmen thank Secretary Vilsack for his dedication to conservation and hunting and angling, and we look forward to supporting his continued commitment to programs like Open Fields during development of the 2012 Farm Bill.”

“In spite of recent funding cuts proposed by Congress for VPA-HIP, this public-access program remains popular among states and of course with rank-and-file sportsmen,” said TRCP President and CEO Whit Fosburgh. “Open Fields has successfully expanded access to recreational opportunities and promoted the conservation of millions of acres of privately owned lands. This program must not be eliminated.”

With Tuesday’s announcement, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Montana, New Hampshire, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming, along with the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, join Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin as VPA-HIP participants.

Secretary Vilsack also reportedly announced that the USDA will accept 2.8 million acres offered by landowners under the 41st Conservation Reserve Program general signup. A popular Farm Bill program, the CRP encourages farmers and ranchers to plant ground cover that bolsters soil and wildlife resources and enhances waterways and fish habitat.

The Farm Bill forms a critical element of U.S. private-lands conservation. Millions of acres of fish and wildlife habitat and the hunting and fishing opportunities they provide have been sustained through Farm Bill programs.