For Immediate Release: August 5, 2010
By Sarah Wynne Jackson
Back Country Horsemen of America, the leading organization in saving public lands trails for equestrian use, strongly supports the United States Department of Agriculture’s new program called “Open Fields” or Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP).
An Innovative Step
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced this effort to encourage owners and operators of privately held farm, ranch, and forest land to voluntarily provide public access for recreation under programs implemented by state or tribal governments. Such access will offer new opportunities for enjoying open spaces through a variety of activities such as hunting, fishing, mountain biking, hiking, bird watching, and, of course, horseback riding.
Open Fields is the first federal incentive program designed to encourage best management practices and sportsman access to undeveloped land. Instead of creating new federal programs, it relies upon existing and new state programs to protect landowners from liability and reward them for doing the right thing with their land.
Back Country Horsemen of America realizes that the majority of the existing programs have limited scope and budgets, with most programs having an annual budget of under a million dollars. Open Fields will provide up to $50 million through fiscal year 2012. This funding will help states and tribal governments address many issues that can greatly increase access and recreational experiences.
Funding priority will be given to proposals that line up with the program’s objectives such as maximizing participation by landowners; ensuring that land enrolled in the program has appropriate wildlife habitat; and providing information to the public about the location of public access land.
Sharing and Caring
Back Country Horsemen of America notes that the benefits of the Open Fields plan are numerous. In these times, undeveloped land is becoming harder to come by, and public lands managers are working with increasingly small budgets that cannot cover the maintenance costs required to keep trails open. This is where hard working folks like BCHA members fill in the gaps with strong volunteerism.
For a variety of reasons, horses are now being banned from more and more trails, properties, and whole wildernesses. Back Country Horsemen of America feels that, as a nation, we are in danger of losing our heritage as a people who traveled by horseback, who depended on the sturdy backs and generous nature of their pack and saddle stock.
The Open Fields program is a positive against those negatives, increasing the number of undeveloped acres available for recreation, and increasing our opportunities for enjoying America’s beauty the way our forefathers did, by horseback.
BCHA sees that this program will also promote conservation and appreciation of our undeveloped private lands, which compliments BCHA’s role of preserving opportunities on public lands. Property owners will be rewarded for managing their lands to provide recreational opportunities while sustaining a diverse and healthy ecosystem. Recreationists will learn how to tread lightly on the land, as well as gain a new appreciation for nature.
Additionally, there is the potential for the Open Fields plan to stimulate local economies and support job growth. As folks come into the area to recreate, they purchase a variety of goods and services such as fuel, food, supplies, and lodging.
Private landowners may have concerns about liability protection when opening their land to the public for recreational purposes. All fifty states, however, have enacted some degree of liability protection for these landowners through statutes know as "recreational use statutes”.
A Step in the Right Direction
Back Country Horsemen of America sees the Open Fields program as a step against the tide of a growing trend that is making our public lands unavailable for pack and saddle stock use. Not only does it promote the protection of undeveloped land by rewarding private owners for maintaining best practices, Open Fields also encourages the appreciation of those lands by the general public.
About Back Country Horsemen of America
BCHA is a non-profit corporation made up of state organizations, affiliates, and at large members. Their efforts have brought about positive changes in regards to the use of horses and stock in the wilderness and public lands.
If you want to know more about Back Country Horsemen of America or become a member, visit their website: www.backcountryhorse.com, call 888-893-5161, or write PO Box 1367, Graham, WA 98338-1367. The future of horse use on public lands is in our hands!
Contact: Back Country Horsemen of America, Peg Greiwe