Today, Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and Dusty Johnson (R-SD) introduced bipartisan legislation, the Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act, to reauthorize and strengthen the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides grants to states and tribal governments to incentivize private landowners to voluntarily open their lands for public use while upholding private property rights. The bill increases the program’s funding from $50 million to $150 million over 5 years, from fiscal years 2024 through 2028.
A lack of access to land is a common barrier to participation in outdoor recreational activities such as hunting, angling, and wildlife viewing. The VPA-HIP seeks to address this challenge by expanding public access to land for recreation purposes. It would also stimulate local economies by supporting jobs in the outdoor recreation economy, specifically in our rural communities. Finally, funding from this program is utilized to provide assistance to landowners for wildlife habitat improvement and enhancement programs.
“A big part of Michigan’s culture and heritage has always included outdoor recreation like fishing and hunting, and continuing to expand access to land for public use is important to continuing these rich traditions,” said Rep. Dingell. “The Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act will expand outdoor recreation opportunities nationwide, improve access to the outdoors for all Americans, and bolster critical conservation efforts. I look forward to working with my bipartisan co-lead to advance this bill through the Farm Bill process.”
“This voluntary program has proven to be successful – encouraging conservation while allowing public access,” said Rep. Johnson. “I’ll work to include programs like this in the 2023 Farm Bill to ensure the tradition of outdoor recreation for future generations of South Dakotans.”
“The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF) appreciates the steadfast leadership of former Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus (CSC) Leader Congresswoman Dingell and CSC Member Congressman Johnson as they champion the Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act of 2023 in the House,” said Jeff Crane, CSF’s President and CEO. “VPA-HIP is a critically important program that partners states with generous landowners to provide private lands access opportunities for sportsmen and women. The renewal and expansion of this program is central to CSF’s Farm Bill priorities.”
“Lack of access is the largest barrier to hunter and angler participation, and the USDA’s Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program is the single best federal tool to increase recreational access on private lands,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We applaud Representatives Dingell and Johnson for their leadership on the Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act and we look forward to working with Congress to expand hunting and fishing opportunities for all Americans.”
“Access to private lands provides valuable fishing opportunities to anglers across the country,” said Glenn Hughes, president of the American Sportfishing Association. “Since 2008, the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program has delivered crucial support to landowners to voluntarily open their lands to fishing, hunting and other outdoor recreation. The American Sportfishing Association applauds Representatives Dingell and Johnson for their support of VPA-HIP through legislation that would expand this successful program and open new waters to America’s 52.4 million anglers.”
“We greatly appreciate Representatives Dingell and Johnson introducing the House version of the VPA Improvement Act. As we entered discussions of the 2023 Farm Bill, extending and expanding the impact of VPA-HIP was one of Delta’s highest priorities,” said John Devney, chief policy officer at Delta Waterfowl. “As duck hunters across the country look for additional access, increased investments in VPA HIP can lead to new partnerships with private landowners to enhance habitat and also provide access. We hope that the effort by Representatives Dingell and Johnson will lead to a broader bi-partisan effort to include an expanded VPA-HIP in the final Farm Bill.”
“Since 2008, the Voluntary Public Access & Habitat Incentive Program has provided one of the most vital funding sources for increasing public access to private lands for hunting, fishing, and other wildlife-dependent recreation,” said Marilyn Vetter, President and CEO, Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever. “The economic returns from investments in VPA-HIP have been shown many times over across America for rural communities. Access is at the core of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s mission, and we thank Representatives Dingell and Johnson for their bipartisan support for this very successful program.”
“VPA-HIP is an incredibly important program for hunters, opening nearly one million private acres to public hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation over its lifetime,” said Torin Miller, senior director of policy for the National Deer Association. “Not surprisingly, interest and enrollment in the program is growing. The Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act of 2023 recognizes the growing interest in the program and the importance of maintaining quality hunting access across the country. The bill’s $150-million authorization will ensure expanded and continued enrollment in VPA-HIP, benefiting hunters, landowners, and local communities. The National Deer Association is proud to endorse this legislation.”
“Restoring wildlife habitat and expanding recreational access on private lands is a win-win for both wildlife and the hunters, anglers, and outdoorspeople, who power our $862 billion outdoor recreation economy,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “This common-sense bill will ensure farmers, ranchers, and private land owners have the tools and resources they need through the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program to sustain our shared wildlife heritage. Thank you to Representatives Dingell and Johnson and their colleagues in the Senate for working to pass this important bipartisan legislation.”
“Access to hunting lands, especially throughout southern Michigan, can be scarce. Rep. Debbie Dingell’s sponsorship of this legislation and commitment to VPA-HIP affirms her commitment to access for hunters and conservationists,” said Amy Trotter, Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC) chief executive officer. “Data shows access is a major barrier to entry for new hunters, and this funding helps bring lands they can access close to them.”
This legislation is identical to the bipartisan bill introduced by Senators Steve Daines (R-MT), Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Roger Marshall (R-KS).
The 2018 Farm Bill made $50 million available for the VPA-HIP, of which Michigan received $1,587,600. Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources used these funds to increase public access for hunting through the Hunting Access Program (HAP). This funding has particularly benefited the Southern region of the state, where most of the state’s population lives and where 97 percent of the land base is privately owned. The HAP has provided access to quality hunting land, specifically near urban centers for those who would otherwise lack access to the outdoors.
Read the text of the bill here.