Larry Rhodes has always relied on Mother Nature and patience to restore the timber on his Angus seedstock cow/calf operation. Conservation is a passion for this Carlinville, Illinois, producer. So, it was an easy decision about six years ago to add another tool to his timber-management plan -- participation in the Illinois Recreational Access Program (IRAP).
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) developed IRAP in 2011 as a way to increase public access on private land for outdoor recreational activities. More than 95% of the land in Illinois is privately owned. Through participation in IRAP, producers can receive conservation program planning and assistance, as well as a financial stipend for access.
"The 2010 farm bill opened access to private lands, and the state of Illinois jumped onboard," said Tammy Miller, IRAP manager, based in Springfield. "Our goal with the program is to provide more places for outdoor recreational activities for youth and families."
Other states have similar programs. Grants are made available through USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP). States must submit grant proposals to participate.
IDNR first began leasing land from private owners to provide access for youth turkey hunting. The department later added adult turkey hunting, archery deer hunting, upland, small game and waterfowl hunting, fishing and boating, birding and outdoor photography. Land that qualifies for the program must have habitat for hunting and/or access to a river on a public waterway or pond.
Rhodes heard about the program from a neighbor, who also participates. He has land in a permanent easement with the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), so IRAP seemed like a good match. He opens his pasture to youth turkey hunters during certain designated weekends in the spring when there are no cattle in the area. In return, he receives $500 from IRAP.
"This is a good program for youth, and the hunters are respectful of our property," he said. "I appreciate that it allows young people to learn how to hunt for a purpose."
Rhodes said the program offers a fair trade -- recreation access for habitat restoration and revenue. Landowners are eligible for a 90/10 cost-share to implement restoration practices. Farmers may cover their 10% in cash or as in-kind contributions, such as the use of equipment. For example, this can be a tractor to help with the habitat restoration.
The IRAP program retains four professionals statewide who help with habitat management.
"We harvest timber every 25 to 30 years," Rhodes said. He primarily harvests walnut and white oak that's used to produce veneer logs. Staff from the state forestry department comes in and marks trees ready for harvest. The timber is put out for bids for sale.
"The IRAP experts have helped us better manage those acres for wildlife and for tree production," Rhodes explained. "They have the knowledge we do not. It has been pennies on the dollar for the expertise they provide. It's a good thing for us."
"The benefit really is habitat improvement," Miller added. "It can be very expensive and time-consuming to eradicate invasive species, prepare and plant pollinator habitat or trees, and other beneficial habitat projects. We create habitat-management plans for all of the enrolled land."
BEYOND THE MONEY
"The payment from the state is nice, but that isn't why we do this," Rhodes said.
In fact, the financial stipend landowners receive really doesn't provide an income stream for farmers, although Miller said some landowners enroll enough acreage to receive several thousand dollars per year. The annual payment is based on a sliding scale for the number of acres enrolled and for the outdoor activities the landowner is willing to allow on his land.
For example, a farmer with a 5-acre pond receives $250 per acre per year for allowing registered participants to access the pond for fishing four days a week, April through September, for a total of $1,250. A landowner with 500 acres for archery deer hunting would receive $2.60 per acre -- $1,300 for Oct. 1 through 15, $1,300 for Oct. 15 through 31, or $2,600 for the entire month.
Leases are typically set up for four years. Miller said the lease agreement has an "opt-out" clause so the landowner or the IDNR can cancel anytime during the lease for a prorated amount. Habitat-management practices must be maintained by the landowner for 10 years.
Interest in the program primarily has spread by word of mouth. Since IRAP's inception, nearly 17,000 acres in 43 Illinois counties have been leased for outdoor recreation activities.
Miller said IRAP has helped landowners with almost 6,000 acres of non-native species removal and aerial spraying, nearly 1,500 acres of prescribed burning, 250 acres of timber stand improvement and another 250 acres of prairie planting. The program can be done in conjunction with Conservation Reserve Program, CREP and Wetlands Reserve Program activities.
"Landowners can apply to participate at any time during the year," said Miller, noting they are especially in search of waterfowl-hunting sites as demand continues to grow. "We encourage interested producers to sign up as soon as possible. We don't know if the program will be part of the next farm bill, so anyone who signs up by September 2018 will be locked into a lease."
LIMITED LANDOWNER LIABILITY
Rhodes said one big benefit of the IRAP is the limited liability assumed by the landowner. Permitted IRAP users must sign a liability waiver, and IRAP provides free extra liability insurance coverage ($2 million liability, $1 million per occurrence) for the landowner during all IRAP activities.
In addition, permitted outdoor recreationalists aren't allowed to use alcohol, leave garbage, have campfires, swim or camp on the property. IRAP posts signs informing people where to park and sometimes uses paint to mark property boundaries.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Illinois Department of Natural Resources: www.dnr.illinois.gov
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