Private landowners, including farmers, have an opportunity to gain a bit of extra income while providing outdoor recreation enthusiasts with access to additional lands in the state, thanks to a public access program being offered by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR.)
Melissa Keenan, DNR coordinator of the Voluntary Public Access (VPA) program, explained it is designed to provide financial incentives to private landowners who open their land to public access for recreational activities like hunting, fishing, trapping and just observing wildlife.
The funding was authorized under the 2008 Farm Bill and Wisconsin received $1.9 million to implement the program, Keenan explained.
The program was initiated in September 2010 when the rules for the program and funding were finalized. Originally 37 counties were the focus of the program based on the state's population centers.
"We had a focus area in the west central part of the state around Eau Claire, one in the Fox Valley and another in the Madison-Milwaukee area," she said. "In the southwest where there is lots of land enrolled in CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program), which means there are lots of buffer strips, we concentrated on stream access."
Keenan said that when the state received its funding for the program, the third year's funding was held back. Now those funds are being made available.
She's trying to spread the word on the program because the remainder of the grant from an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) must be used by September.
In addition to the 37 counties that were in the program, the program has been expanded into 12 additional counties, she said. "We need to let landowners in those counties know about this opportunity."
The program offers annual lease rates based on the land type: agriculture land gets $3 per acre; grasslands and wetlands get $10 per acres and forestland gets $15 per acre.
Lease lengths are up to three years and an upfront lump sum payment would be made at the beginning of the contract, she said.
Priority will be given to offered parcels larger than 40 acres with at least 25 percent usable cover. Land that is adjacent to other land that is already open to public hunting and/or fishing is also given a higher priority, she added.
Stream and fishing access will continue to be a priority in the southwest focus area. "We found that getting more access to public recreation land helps stimulate local economies," she told Wisconsin State Farmer in a telephone interview.
OTHER PROGRAMS HELP
Land enrolled in conservation programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE), Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), and Managed Forest Law (MFL) may also be eligible for enrollment.
Keenan said this new program, funded by the federal grant, builds on a public access program Wisconsin has had since the 1950s. In that Public Hunting Ground (PHG) program state money was used to get landowners to allow public access to their land.
"But the lease rates were fairly low and that caused the program to die out in some areas of the state."
There were still significant PHG lands, however, in Rock County, in the Footville and Evansville areas, and in Sheboygan County, she said.
Those landowners were offered the higher lease rates included in this new program and most of them jumped on board. There are about 14,000 acres of land now in the VPA program that were converted from the older state program.
Currently, Keenan said, there are 180 VPA landowner agreements in place and they cover 32,000 acres of land.
All the VPS leases are written to expire at one time - August 31, 2014 - so people who sign up their land now will only get two-year leases, she explained.
"A lot of people are really pretty happy with the program. The up-front payment is intended as an incentive."
But some landowners may have other incentives. "If they're not hunters they may have a problem with deer on their land so allowing other people to come in and hunt is good solution for them.
"Other people are just happy to share their land."
When land gets enrolled in the public access program, the DNR also installs a postcard survey station, where visitors/users can respond to the department with comments.
"We ask them things like how far they traveled to get there and if they harvested any animals while they were there; if they did any hunting or trapping." She said these snail mail responses she has gotten have shown enthusiasm for the program.
Keenan emphasized that some landowners are concerned about allowing public access because of liability issues. Under state statutes, landowners are immune from liability for injuries (or death) to individuals who visit on their lands through a public access program.
"That law has been upheld a number of times in court. There are also state statutes in place to compensate landowners for damages to their property caused by people who use it."
Other landowners have been concerned that they may not know when people are on their land. "We suggest that a specific parking area be designated, and it doesn't have to be improved. But if all the visitors park there it gives the landowner a way of knowing how many people are there at any given time," she said.
Landowners who are interested in the program should contact Keenan at 608-266-5560 to enroll. She will send them a sample lease agreement and they can decide if there are certain areas they want to exclude from public access.
Once they decide they want to participate in the program, the DNR comes out and puts up the signs and survey boxes.
For more information on the program or to find VPA properties open to public access, visit http://dnr.wi.gov
and search "VPA".
Keenan said the grant program that created the VPA was included in the last Farm Bill because a similar "walk-in access" program in the Western states had shown it could generate local economic activity by bringing people into small towns where they spent money in local businesses on food, gas and supplies.