Senators from Montana, Colorado look to fund national public access program

Sen. Steve Daines on Tuesday joined a Colorado Democrat in introducing legislation to expand opportunities for outdoor recreation across the West in a nod to the region’s outdoor economy.

Daines and Sen. Michael Bennet said the Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act has won the support of nearly three dozen conservation and hunting groups, including Pheasants Forever and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

“Nothing beats spending time outdoors hunting, fishing, backpacking – it’s the Montana way of life,” Daines said in a statement. “This bill will strengthen Montana’s outdoor recreation economy and open up more space for families and sportsmen to enjoy local wildlife.”

As written, the new measure would reauthorize and strengthen the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program by increasing funding from $40 million to $150 million over 5 years.

That program provides competitive grants to states and tribal governments who can use them to provide incentives to private landowners who will voluntarily open their lands for public use while upholding private property rights.

Daines said the grants have helped open of 76,000 acres for hunting and increased public access in Montana. That has the support of Montana conservation groups.

“By enabling state agencies to create or expand local access programs, this vital program increases opportunities for hunting, fishing and other wildlife-dependent recreation, while also strengthening and supporting rural economies,” said Virgil Moore, the president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

Gov. Steve Bullock joined Montana conservation and outdoor groups this week in announcing a similar measure. That effort looks to pursue public easements across private property to public lands.

Bennet said he’ll work to prioritize funding for the federal act now before Congress.

“This program has rewarded Colorado’s farmers and ranchers for providing new opportunities for the next generation of sportsmen and women and improving wildlife habitat across our state,” Bennet said. “As we work on the next Farm Bill, we’ll continue to prioritize funding for this successful program.”