Only recently has LWCF funding been specifically purposed with unlocking our inaccessible public lands, meaning that we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us when it comes to establishing access to isolated parcels
When the TRCP and onX began the research for our recent inaccessible public lands report, “Off Limits, But Within Reach,” the primary goal was to produce the most accurate calculation of landlocked public lands possible. But in addition to determining that the thirteen Western states contain more than 9.52 million acres of landlocked federal public lands, we also uncovered another startling finding: the work to open access to these inaccessible public lands has largely just begun.
As part of the report, we wanted to highlight successful examples of acquisition projects that provided public access to the two different types of landlocked public lands: checkerboard and isolated parcels. Checkerboard lands are remnants of a bygone era when the federal government gave railroad companies alternating sections of land that met corner-to-corner, whereas isolated parcels are tracts of public land entirely enclosed by surrounding private holdings.
Searching for these real-world examples, we called every expert we could imagine within the land trust community and the federal land management agencies. There was no shortage of great LWCF-funded checkerboard consolidation projects, but we were shocked by how difficult it was to find an example of a LWCF-funded project that opened access to an isolated parcel. In fact, our research turned up only one isolated parcel access success story nationwide: Western Rivers Conservancy’s Thirtymile Project along the John Day River in eastern Oregon.
As we came to realize, isolated parcels haven’t been prioritized for access acquisition in the past because of the way that LWCF projects were traditionally “scored” by the federal agencies when being considered for funding.
While the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been around since 1965—using revenue from offshore oil and gas development to fund outdoor recreation projects—the Fund has primarily been used by the federal agencies to benefit public lands by conserving resources like wildlife habitat, clean water, and special places. Acquisition projects that consolidate checkerboard lands not only improve or establish new access to public lands, they also prevent habitat fragmentation and the future development of intact landscapes, and thus often check the necessary boxes to score highly under the traditional rating system.
While the long-term use of LWCF dollars has benefited millions of Americans and advanced countless projects that were worth their weight in gold—including many that benefitted access— it wasn’t until 2012 that Congress mandated an annual portion of the Fund be used exclusively to address the issue of limited or nonexistent access to public lands. The timing of that change made sense, given that private land access issues weren’t a major concern when the fund was originally created—in decades past, most sportsmen and women could obtain landowner permission without too much difficulty. And so acquisition projects to unlock isolated parcels of public land for hunters and anglers only very recently became a priority for LWCF funding.
As a result, our research found that in places like the BLM Miles City Field Office of eastern Montana, nearly one million acres of federally managed public lands sit entirely inaccessible to the public, yet not a single LWCF project has been completed in the area to fund public access. The story is much the same in other areas with a similarly high concentration of landlocked lands, such as the BLM Buffalo Field Office in eastern Wyoming.
Sportsmen and women should not see this situation as a failure, but rather as a sign that this important work is now just getting started and that we still have much to do. In fact, many lawmakers appear to recognize the need to fund access acquisition and on September 13, the House Natural Resources Committee passed HR 502, a bipartisan and well-reasoned LWCF-reauthorization bill that includes up to $27 million annually for access acquisition—twice the amount that has been previously available.
While last week’s development represents an encouraging opportunity, the House committee’s actions on LWCF were just one of many needed steps to save this vital program before its scheduled expiration on September 30. With no clear resolution in sight, there’s a very real risk that sportsmen and women will lose the best available tool to open access to landlocked public lands across the West when we need it most.
Take action today to encourage your lawmakers to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund with full, dedicated annual funding before it expires on September 30. Your future ability to access more than 9.52 million additional acres of our public lands depends on it.
Photo courtesy of BLM Wyoming