Access matters: closed fields?

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Photo courtesy of Big Picture Agriculture

From the Birding Community E-bulletin: opportunities for those who enjoy grasslands – from birders to hunters – are vanishing.

Across large segments of our Great Plains there are state-based efforts to provide public access to private conservation lands – mostly on re-cropped grasslands under the Farm Bill’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). These programs go by different names in individual states and are not all run the same way. In some states, access is made available only to those people with hunting licenses (since license dollars may help to pay the landowners for opening their lands). In other states, access is open to all – hunters, birders, photographers, hikers, and others.

This was described in past issues of the E-bulletin, especially with the 2008 Farm Bill’s “Open Fields” element (officially called the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, or VPA-HIP) which was intended to help the states open up more private acres to the general public. For example, see here in May 2010:

http://refugeassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/sbc-may10.pdf

and in September 2011:

http://refugeassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/sbc-sep11.pdf

The trend in Open Fields was to open up more lands, but that portion of the Farm Bill ran out of funds, so its resurrection is now in doubt.

We currently see the reverse happening, with CRP enrollment expiring, and lands disappearing from even hunter access, let alone access to the general public. Instead of moving toward a more general Open-Field orientation, the trend seems to be in the opposite direction.

North Dakota is an example. A decade ago, landowners there were attracted to CRP and the additional state bonus to participate in the Private Land Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) program administered by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. These PLOTS properties have been marked across the state with iconic yellow triangle signs. At its peak in 2008-2010, PLOTS had 1.1 million acres enrolled for access. That dropped to 760,000 in 2013.

It’s often a simple financial decision for the landowner. Farm Bill CRP subsidies, even with PLOTS payment cannot compete with cash rents in today’s market, especially when considering the land-rush for corn ethanol.

The prospects are troublesome. Some observers have predicted that PLOTS across North Dakota could fall to about 200,000 acres in four years.

This can’t be good: not for hunters, not for birders, and certainly not for the habitat. After all, it is important CRP grasses and other vegetative cover habitat that is being lost, and instead of opening up to others with the help of federal Open Fields dollars, the tendency is clearly in the opposite direction.

The implications go far beyond North Dakota.

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