Across the West, 9.52 million acres of public lands sit entirely landlocked, and can be accessed only with the permission of the neighboring private landowners. In some cases, isolated parcels of land are wholly enclosed or “landlocked” by private-land holdings, through which no legal public road or trail passes. In other instances, a checkerboard of land ownership results in public and private parcels meeting corner to corner, and, by most interpretations, state trespass law prevents “corner-crossing” from one piece of public land to another.
Back when private-land permissions were readily acquired, this was not a serious obstacle to sporting access. But as land ownership patterns have shifted, sportsmen and women more and more frequently encounter no-trespassing signs and gated roads, and inaccessible public lands now present a major barrier to hunting and fishing. Surprisingly though, little has been done to understand the scope of the problem, its effect on our hunting and fishing opportunities, or what it will take to systematically unlock these lands—until now.
This checkerboard section of national forest land—nearly 4,000 acres of which is inaccessible—stretches along the East Humboldt Mountains in northeast Nevada. Note the corner-to-corner alignment of the individual parcels along the western slope.
The isolated tracts of BLM land shown here fall along the Wyoming-Montana border, in the Powder River Basin northeast of Gillette. Totaling more than 6,000 acres, the two largest, centermost parcels are surrounded on all sides by privately owned ranches.
Located northeast of Mountain Home, Idaho, on the edge of Wood Creek Mountain, this 1,775 acre isolated block of Boise National Forest and Idaho state trust lands lies within big game management unit 44, yet sits inaccessible to public hunting.
Just east of the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Oregon, a patch of checkerboard extends across 15 miles of high desert bordering a wilderness study area. Although a tangled network of two-tracks and county roads wind their way through this corridor, 17 parcels of BLM land totaling more than 7,000 acres have no permanent legal public access
Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Region 7 is a mule deer hunter’s paradise—but it also contains a disproportionately high percentage of landlocked lands. From the shores of Fort Peck Lake to the Tongue and Powder Rivers, more than 898,000 acres of public land within Region 7 are not accessible, unless permission is granted from an adjacent private landowner. Other sub-regions throughout the West, including eastern Wyoming and northern Nevada, contain similarly high concentrations of landlocked lands. Unlocking these areas’ inaccessible public lands would both expand hunting opportunities and benefit small-town economies.
If policymakers are serious about improving public land access for hunting and fishing, they need to pass a permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund with full, dedicated annual funding.
Since 1964, the LWCF has opened more than 5 million acres of public land, invested more than $16 billion in conservation and outdoor recreation, established new public fishing areas, unlocked previously inaccessible public lands, and enabled the strategic acquisition of additional public lands for the benefit of hunters, anglers, and everyone who enjoys the outdoors.
Although the Land and Water Conservation Fund is the single most powerful tool for opening landlocked public lands and connecting even more Americans to their best days afield, Congress allowed the program to expire on September 30, 2018. If it is not reauthorized, conservation groups and public land management agencies will have limited ability to open and expand access to America’s public lands, despite the commitment of many public officials to do just that.
The John Day River and its tributaries have long been among the West’s premier destinations for sportsmen and women. Anglers chase world-class steelhead and smallmouth bass in the unique setting of central Oregon’s high desert, and hunters lucky enough to draw a tag for the area’s elk, mule deer, or bighorn sheep will forever remember their time on this steep and rugged landscape.
Near the small town of Condon, the John Day is joined by Thirtymile Creek, a critical spawning area for some of the watershed’s most significant runs of wild steelhead. Up and downstream from Thirtymile Creek, more than seventy miles of the John Day Wild and Scenic River canyon are flanked on both sides by public BLM lands, offering outstanding fishing, hunting, hiking, and boating opportunities. Until recently, however, the only direct access to the river in its lower nine miles was controlled by private ranches and reachable only by boat or with adjacent landowner permission.
In 2014, Western Rivers Conservancy began an ambitious, multi-phase effort to secure permanent public access to the John Day River at Thirtymile Creek and create new recreational access to the wealth of public lands above and below the tributary. Working with willing sellers, WRC purchased two ranches to conserve 11,148 acres of fish and wildlife habitat and enhance public access to the John Day.
In 2018, WRC transferred the first 4,082 acres to the BLM using LWCF funding, forever securing access to the river and previously landlocked BLM parcels. The remaining ranchlands are slated for conveyance to the BLM by early 2019, again using funds from LWCF. In all, WRC’s efforts will add 11,148 acres of public hunting and fishing grounds to the public trust, unlock 2,323 acres of entirely landlocked BLM lands, and improve access to an additional 75,000+ hard-to-reach public acres.
Just east of Missoula, Montana, the John Long Mountains rise from the southern banks of the Clark Fork River. When the Northern Pacific Railway’s tracks stretched across this land nearly 150 years ago, the densely treed hillsides attracted timber companies that cut ties and lumber from parcels acquired through the railroad’s land grants. The checkerboarded holdings following the river down the valley are remnants of this history, but these days the slopes draw hunters in pursuit of deer, elk, grouse, and bears, while anglers in drift-boats and rafts ply the waters below.
Upstream from the Rock Creek confluence, a ten-mile-long section of that checkerboard land is slated for consolidation into full public ownership under the management of the U.S. Forest Service, thanks to the efforts of the Trust for Public Land. Known as the Beavertail-to-Bearmouth Project, this planned acquisition of parcels from the Stimson Lumber Company will secure valuable wildlife habitat from potential fragmentation and development, and it will enhance public access in an area where some parcels lack public roads.
The Beavertail-to-Bearmouth Project is currently the Forest Service’s highest-ranking LWCF priority in the country, and has already added 640 new acres to the Lolo National Forest, eliminating the potential for sportsmen and women to be denied future access to more than 1,900 acres of public land. The project’s second phase, an acquisition of another 6,140 acres, has been proposed for funding in Fiscal Year 2019, after the LWCF reauthorization deadline. These federal dollars would ensure that public-land hunters and anglers have guaranteed access to more than fifty miles of roads stretching east across the forest into the Flint Creek Valley, as well as to the numerous drainages and streams rolling down to the Clark Fork. But if the Land and Water Conservation Fund were to lapse, this checkerboard acquisition project could be put on hold indefinitely.