- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2005

To address diminishing hunting acreage and sporting opportunities for Americans, U.S. Sens. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, and Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, have introduced a new version of what is known as the “Open Fields” bill. If successful, the legislation will open millions of acres of private land and water to hunters and anglers while offering farmers, ranchers and foresters a chance to bring new income into their operations.

A companion bill was introduced in the House by Reps. Tom Osborne, Nebraska Republican, and Earl Pomeroy, North Dakota Democrat.

The bill, officially known as the “Voluntary Public Access and Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program Act of 2005,” would fund grants to state and tribal access programs and encourage expansion and improvement of fish and wildlife habitat.

One of the great supporters of this bill, the respected conservation organization known as the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, says an earlier version of Open Fields introduced in November 2003 had 40 Republican and Democratic co-sponsors and the enthusiastic support of the country’s leading hunting, fishing and conservation groups.

This improved version of the legislation expands funding availability for tribal access programs and forest properties. Responding to budgetary constraints, Open Fields now calls for $20 million in annual federal funding from the Department of Agriculture to be made available between 2005 and 2009. It would equate to roughly 4 million acres of new land opened each year.

There are currently 17 states with access programs that will qualify for Open Fields grants. States with particularly strong access programs include North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana and Kansas. In Montana’s access program alone during the 2004 hunting season, approximately 1,250 landowners opened nearly 8.8 million acres to the public.

In fact, there are now states with waiting lists of willing landowners, but nothing can be done without receiving additional funding.

The TRCP says feedback about the Open Fields bill has been very positive, with sportsmen expressing hope that Congress will seize this opportunity to directly address two of their biggest problems: loss of access and loss of quality fish and game habitat.

For hunters, especially, loss of land access is a growing problem that is cited as a major contributing factor in the decline of the sport. The TRCP says urban sprawl, concerns over liability and other factors are making it more difficult for a hunter/angler of average means to get on land reasonably close to his or her home that still has good fish and game habitat and isn’t overcrowded.

Other national organizations — including Pheasants Forever, the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Whitetails Unlimited and the Izaak Walton League of America — will continue to work together to support Open Fields and to urge legislators to come aboard.

Flounder rules change for Marylanders — The Maryland Department of Natural Resources says minimum sizes and creel limits for summer flounder in the Atlantic and coastal bays are changing. Starting April 1, along the Atlantic you’ll be allowed to keep four flounder that must be at least 151/2 inches long. However, in the Chesapeake Bay you’ll be permitted to keep only two of the flatfish, with a 15-inch minimum size requirement.

Anglers can visit the DNR online to see minimum sizes and creel limits for all finfish and crabs: www.dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries/regulations/regindex.html.

Wild turkey celebration — All 237 Dick’s Sporting Goods stores will celebrate the arrival of spring turkey hunting season by holding a National Wild Turkey Federation Day on Sunday.

Conservation and outdoor organizations, along with local turkey federation chapters, will present seminars, product demonstrations, prize drawings and other activities at many store locations. Shoppers who sign up to become a federation member, as well as current members, will receive special coupon offers. For details, go to dickssportinggoods.com

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