Virginia Nabs $3M Grant to Boost Private Land Access; Much Going to 'Watchable Wildlife' Efforts
Note: A newspaper column about this issue ran in the Oct. 22, 2020 issue of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. Be sure to read the full article linked here in the Free Lance-Star. Below is an expanded commentary that I think further outlines a situation that should give many hunters and anglers something to consider. There seems to have been a lack of transparency inherent in this particular, rushed process...yes, it was a short deadline, but it may have also been a missed opportunity to do something concrete to help with what many call the biggest issue facing conservation today - namely hunter recruitment and retention.
The $3 million awarded to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR) under a Natural Resources Conservation Grant last March reflects a plum reward. The VDWR announced publicly with a media release followed by a social media posting a few details about the grant this week. It seems Virginia was among the top three states in terms of money awarded. The money comes via the 2018 federal Farm Bill, a massive effort, with thousands of legislative initiatives and plums tucked in its many nooks and crevices. The program through which the money was granted is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and it is called the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. Its primary use is to lease private lands for wildlife-dependent recreation. Out in the Western United States, similar programs typically are used to compensate private landowners for allowing public hunting access on their lands. In Virginia, though, this grant is going to build 16 elk and bird watching stations, some small (non-motorized) boat launches, enhance fewer than 300 acres of habitat improvement and improve "access," although I still have unanswered questions to the agency about exactly what type of "access" people will get to the expected 20 or so properties DWR says it will enroll in the program. Will it be hunting, hiking, more bird watching...?
In Virginia, the Department of Wildlife Resources manages access to these private properties for hunting, fishing, trapping, boating, and/or wildlife viewing. The program used to be called Public Access Lands for Sportsmen or PALS, for short. That is being changed, apparently, transitioning to Public Opportunities for Wildlife-Related Recreation or POWRR. The agency says this is a new program encompassing and expanding upon PALS. I don't know. Many hunters and/or anglers, the people who buy the hunting licenses, guns, ammo, expensive gear, etc., that pay for the agency, will likely see it as just another subtle step in their disenfranchisement -- the very people who carried the agency for generations. Remember - it used to be the Department of "Game" & Inland Fisheries. But "Game" connotes hunting, doesn't it?
Hunters and anglers do spend a lot of money on their passions, but license sales are declining. Only four states, Alabama, Mississippi, North Dakota and Oklahoma, had per capita increases in recent years. The latest national survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows about 5 percent of Americans, age 16 and older, hunt. That's half of what it was 50 years ago. It will be interesting to see what the COVID-19 year statistics show.
Virginia is trending down. The Old Dominion had 415,273 licensed hunters in 1959. From 1975 to about 1986, annual license sales ranged between 450,000 to 477,000. The year 1988 saw 517,008 licenses sold, the high-water mark. Inexplicably, numbers tailed off by nearly 100,000 the next year and began steadily dropping about 10,000 a year until the year 2000. By 2003, sales were down to 304,605. Last year’s number slid to 276,019.
License sales are declining for many reasons. Age 65 seems to be the magic number when hunters decide to stop buying licenses. They’re not being replaced by younger people. Shorter attention spans, competition from youth sports, smartphones, video games and more distract kids from getting outdoors.
Interestingly, Virginia’s hunting licenses numbers fell by nearly half while the state’s human population more than doubled. As people spread across an increasingly fragmented Virginia landscape, finding suitable places to hunt is an issue. And that's the rub. Not having a suitable place to hunt within reasonable proximity to home is why many hunters get out and wannabes never get in. It becomes a Catch-22 funding situation since license revenues are what enable many states to buy and maintain habitat and administer hunting programs. It would have been nice if there was some sort of grant program that could have been used to staunch this -- but wait, there was -- Virginia just got $3 million of it.
The old conservation funding model served well. It would be tough to imagine that fewer than 100 years ago species such as deer and wild turkey were scarce, if not totally gone, from many parts of the country. Today, though, states promote “watchable” wildlife and things such as “birding trails.” While sounding great from a wildlife appreciation standpoint, these do little to nothing for funding the management of these watchable critters.
Virginia does state that it will sell POWRR (PALS) permits, which are currently sold as PALS permits, through DWR license agents, online at the DWR website, or through the Go Outdoors mobile app. The fee is $18. My guess, and I'm sure statistical analysis will later bear out, is that elk watching and bird watching permits will amount to chump change versus the million or so that will be spent creating viewing trails and platforms for these "constituents." Please, don't tell me about the "tourism" dollars they will bring in. If that's the case, then Virginia Tourism should be building parking lots and viewing platforms.
Meanwhile license sales will continue to decline because the more populated eastern half of the state features some of the toughest access issues anywhere and is likely contributing to the demise of Old Dominion hunters. All of these efforts to recruit urban/suburban/minority hunters will crash. The areas where these potential hunters may want to venture will not see a nickel of the $3 million grant. And there won't be another bite at a Farm Bill grant apple until at least 2023. I guess I've never gotten the elk mystique. But, I do know that what is truly valuable in Virginia are white-tailed deer. Virginia hunters kill some 200,000 whitetails a year. Deer are the crown jewel species. Elk hunting won't be available for a few years based on best estimates and, guess what, 99.9% of us will never get a crack at hunting a Virginia elk, based on the way various drawing schemes and other precedent means of selling elk permits are set up in other eastern states.
So, yeah, count me as "not a fan" (or at least call me a healthy skeptic) about how DGIF (DWR) applied for and has stipulated it is going to use this $3 million in grants, applying it to some of the most sparsely populated lands in the commonwealth and a region flush with national forest lands and 42,000 acres of wildlife management areas. Don't get me wrong. I'm glad the state got the grant, but see this a misapplication of resources. While not wholly related, it doesn't seem to fit with Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew Strickler's position that money/land-related decisions would be reached in a strategic fashion, especially under the ConservVirginia program. I'm going to research and follow this situation more...because I have been involved in enough land/conservation funding and use issues over the years to sense there is more.
One of the most interesting points I can make was how quickly cheerleaders responded to DWR's social media posts, noting stuff like how great these programs are out in the West and how more land will be opening up, not reading far enough along to see that much of this was going to the resident elk project in 3 counties. We're happy to dig into the details for those without time to read the finer print...there's always finer print. Right now, according to the agency's elk management plan and current estimates, we've got about 250 elk in that elk management zone. Elk are fun to watch and listen to during "bugling" season. Elk are an impressive novelty; loss of hunter license revenue is a disturbing reality. At $3 million for the grant, that's a handsome $12,000 per animal. And, under the management plan, herd numbers will likely not be going up a whole lot in years to come.
This grant, at least on the surface without yet knowing what other informal agreements or thinking was behind it, seems to reflect a preference for the expedient versus the strategic. If you have a shot at $3 million in grant money, why would it be invested in the expedient versus the strategic? I spent more than a decade doing professional strategic planning and actually evaluated some of the military's top installations in terms of how well they they planned from a strategic standpoint and how that translated into broader excellence in customer service and satisfaction. The upshot is resource allocation should be prioritized based on strategic priorities. If R3 (recruit, retain, reactivate) is deemed one of the most severe issue facing DGIF, how does building elk watching and birding stuff square with that? The agency's own R3 plan states it "is not another program, but instead a strategic effort to recalibrate existing efforts and operations with a common objective to increase overall participation."
Opting for an expedient grant submission seems to reflect poorly on the strategic planning, something that has been noted in past JLARC (Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission) reports. "DGIF has neglected using strategic planning as a
tool to address key challenges," was a heading in a recent audit. So, where were the "shovel-ready" projects and programs that might have better reflected actual strategic priorities? Hunters and anglers should feel deceived.
To see the actual DWR grant application, click the item below. There are many potentially laudatory efforts outlined, but absent the details and what it means for DWR's constituents, it's tough to decipher what will be true net outcomes.
To see the NRCS guidelines for applying for the grant, click on the item below.