Do you have any thoughts on this post?
EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was written in 2019, as we were revealing the results of our second collaboration with onX to identify the full scope of the inaccessible public lands problem. We have since released three additional reports on landlocked public lands east of the Mississippi. This is all relevant in 2021, not only because the access challenge persists, but also because checkerboarded public lands and the legality of corner crossing are back in the news. The call to action at the end of this story has been changed: We no longer need to fight for the future of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, but to use it well, we need a complete digital record of all our public lands, including easements that may unlock inaccessible parcels but are only recorded on paper maps. Read on for how history has shaped public land access and what you can still do to help.
This week, the TRCP and onX revealed the results of our latest collaborative study, which showed that 6.35 million acres of state-owned public lands are completely isolated by private lands and therefore inaccessible to American sportsmen and women. To arrive at this total acreage, onX used leading mapping technology to look at state trust lands, state forests, state parks, and wildlife management areas in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
This report also builds on our findings from last year, when onX helped us to identify more than 9.5 million acres of landlocked and inaccessible federal public lands, including those overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other agencies.
GPS technology, now accessible to any hunter or angler with a smartphone, has made this access challenge more obvious in recent years. Ours is the first detailed analysis of how big the problem really is, but the jigsaw puzzle of land ownership that has created barriers to public lands where we have every right to hunt or fish has its origin in the founding of the Western states.
Here’s how we got here.
In the 19th century, as Western territories joined the union, each was granted land from the public estate through acts of Congress. These lands were to be used to generate revenue that would support public institutions, most often schools, in the new states.
The Public Lands Survey System was used to plat landscapes into six-by-six-mile squares known as townships, each including 36 individual one-mile–square sections. And the enabling acts that established statehood specified individual sections from each township’s grid that would be withdrawn from the federal estate and granted to each new state.
The size and placement of these allotments varied and became increasingly more generous as new states were admitted to the union. For instance, Congress granted Montana and Idaho sections 16 and 36 of each township, while New Mexico and Arizona received sections 2, 16, 32, and 36. The result was a scattered, arbitrary pattern of trust lands that frequently led to sections of state land surrounded entirely by private holdings.
While land exchanges, sales, and acquisitions have consolidated and altered the ownership pattern of state land holdings over the years, the original patchwork is still evident across much of 11-state region that onX helped us study to identify landlocked state lands where hunting and fishing opportunities are being lost. Now home to 38.8 million acres of trust lands, the states have—we learned—a 6.35-million-acre landlocked problem.
When it comes to the 9.52 million acres of landlocked federal public lands, these parcels are also a product of history, rooted in the federal government’s aggressive land disposal policies of the 19th century. For much of America’s past, Western lands served as a source of in-kind revenue for the federal government, used at the will of policymakers to achieve their desired aims.
To facilitate the extension of commerce and settlement across the continent, Congress granted railroad companies ownership of alternating sections of land on either side of the tracks, fracturing the landscape into the public-private checkerboard pattern familiar to any Western hunter. The rationale behind this policy was that development spurred by the railroad would double the value of the remaining public lands, which could eventually be sold—negating the cost of the giveaway by the federal government, while simultaneously driving private enterprise.
Meanwhile, as the public domain was divided up piecemeal through the Homestead Act, public lands that had little economic value went unclaimed, and frequently became closed-in by adjacent private holdings. In other instances, some enterprising Western settlers accumulated so much land that public tracts were entirely surrounded by individual ranches or walled off against natural features, like rivers and impassable terrain.
Later, the abandonment of homesteaded farms and a high-profile railroad land scandal returned millions of acres of generally isolated and disjointed tracts of land to the Department of the Interior. The idea of a permanently maintained system of public lands did not take hold until the turn of the twentieth century, when a dedicated model of conservation was championed by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt. It was not until decades later, in 1976, that the Bureau of Land Management, the nation’s largest land management agency, shifted fully to a policy of land retention.
Now, we know better than ever before that these resources play a vital role in maintaining a vast $887-billion outdoor recreation economy, and Americans value our public lands as a means of escaping crowded cities and schedules. In fact, there is a growing need to open overlooked and off-limits public lands to the general public.
It’s important to know that state trust lands differ from federal public lands in how they are managed. By and large, federal lands administered by agencies such as the BLM and U.S. Forest Service are managed for multiple uses, including outdoor recreation, wildlife habitat, energy development, grazing, and timber harvest. The federal agencies are required to balance these uses, and financial profit is not a driver of management.
Under the terms of state land grants, state lands allotted by Congress through the General Land Office were to be managed to produce revenue for designated beneficiaries. This is why, early on, the young states sold off millions of acres of state trust lands for short-term payoffs.
The extent to which states disposed of their lands has varied, with Nevada selling off virtually all of its original land grant and Arizona selling very little. While land sales still do occur with greater frequency at the state level than the federal level, state land boards have moved management direction towards the longer-term approach of leasing them to private interests for grazing, mineral development, and timber extraction. However, to this day, state land boards and management agencies remain obligated to produce revenue for designated beneficiaries, balancing maximum immediate return with the sustainability of revenue and natural resources over time.
This became a hot talking point at the height of the public land transfer debate in 2016, when an extremist minority suggested that the nation’s public lands might be better off in state hands. While this idea still exists, sportsmen and women united to make it known that large-scale transfer or disposal of public lands is extremely unpopular and an irresponsible management strategy. Now, our fight has become more about solving access and management challenges on these lands.
One key to unlocking both state and federally owned landlocked lands is ensuring that decision-makers and the American public have a complete digital record of federal land holdings. This includes easements that often unlock inaccessible parcels, but you won’t find them on your smartphone or GPS because the maps have never been digitized. The Modernizing Access to Public Land, or MAPLand, Act would require federal public land management agencies to make all public land access data, including maps and regulations, available in an online format, giving you confidence that you are using legal access and following the rules.
onX and TRCP release a groundbreaking analysis of state land access across 11 Western states
This week, onX and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership revealed the stunning results of a collaboration to quantify how many acres of state lands across the West are entirely landlocked by private land and, therefore, inaccessible to hunters, anglers, and other outdoor recreationists.
This is the anticipated follow-up to last year’s study of federally managed public lands, which showed that more than 9.52 million federal acres have no permanent legal access because they are isolated by private lands.
The Findings on State Land
Using today’s leading mapping technologies, more than 6.35 million acres of state lands across 11 states in the American West were identified as landlocked by private lands. The detailed findings are now available in a new report, “Inaccessible State Lands in the West: The Extent of the Landlocked Problem and the Tools to Fix It,” which also unpacks how this problem is rooted in the history of the region.
“Based on the success of last year’s landlocked report, we decided to turn our attention to the West’s 49 million acres of state lands, which are important to sportsmen and women just like national forests, refuges, and BLM lands,” says Joel Webster, Western lands director with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “State trust lands, parks, and wildlife management areas often provide excellent hunting and fishing, yet 6.35 million acres of them are currently landlocked and inaccessible to the public. Together with our previous findings, the TRCP and onX have produced the most comprehensive picture of this access challenge across the West.”
The new report and companion website break down landlocked acre totals for each of 11 states. Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming each have more than one million acres of landlocked state lands, creating existing barriers and future opportunities for public access.
“Handheld GPS technologies have revolutionized how the recreating public finds and uses state and federal lands, making millions of acres of small tracts of public lands easy to discover and explore, both safely and legally” says onX founder Eric Siegfried. “GPS technologies have also helped the recreating public become personally aware that inaccessible public lands are scattered across the Western landscape, and onX is eager to help identify the extent of the landlocked challenge and showcase the collaborative tools to fix it.”
Landlocked Acres by State
• Arizona: 1,310,000 acres
• California: 38,000 acres
• Colorado: 435,000 acres
• Idaho: 71,000 acres
• Montana: 1,560,000 acres
• Nevada: < 1,000 acres
• New Mexico: 1,350,000 acres
• Oregon: 47,000 acres
• Utah: 116,000 acres
• Washington: 316,000 acres
• Wyoming: 1,110,000 acres
While the analysis looked at various types of state-administered land, such as state parks and wildlife management areas, the vast majority—about 95 percent—of the landlocked areas identified are state trust lands. Trust lands were long ago granted by the federal government to individual states and are generally open to public recreation in all Western states except Colorado.
“Each year, hunters and anglers across the West enjoy some of their best days outdoors utilizing state land access,” adds Siegfried. “If we can work together to unlock state lands for the public, many more sportsmen and women will have those experiences in the years ahead.”
The report also highlights the various ways in which states are and can be addressing this issue, so that effective solutions can be more widely adopted across the West. Several states have made significant progress with dedicated staff and programs for improving access, and by utilizing walk-in private land hunting access programs to open up state land. Additionally, state-side grants made possible by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which was permanently reauthorized earlier this year, offer another promising tool to address the landlocked problem.
“Many states have embraced the opportunity to open these lands to recreational access, and it is our hope that this report will help decision-makers find ways to tackle the challenge more completely,” says TRCP’s Webster. “This includes Congress doing its part by passing legislation that would establish full and dedicated annual funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which must direct 40 percent of all dollars towards state and local projects.”
The TRCP is encouraging hunters and anglers to support full, permanent funding of the LWCF through its online action tools here.
Learn more and download the full report at unlockingpubliclands.org.
When Congress returns from about a month spent with in-state constituents, the clock will be ticking on these spending bills and conservation policies we need to get across the finish line
You might be picturing lawmakers on a five-week vacation, but the annual August recess is time that senators and representatives spend meeting with their constituents and visiting with leaders in their communities. Ideally, they also find some time to enjoy the outdoors and experience what we all value so much as sportsmen and women.
Of course, we hope they’re thinking about the legislative to-do list for when they return in September, because the timeline grows short for several critical conservation items that must be addressed to benefit fish, wildlife, and habitat. Here’s what we need Congress to move on before the end of the year or, in some cases, within weeks of their return to Capitol Hill.
A familiar debate awaits when Congress returns to Washington: writing and passing all the required appropriations, or annual spending, bills. Now that both the House and Senate have reached a two-year, bipartisan budget deal they must pass appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2020, which starts on October 1. This means that Congress must find a way to fund the government for the next year before the end of September, or they risk another government shutdown.
The House’s spending measures passed earlier this summer include landmark wins for conservation including strong investments in—and in some cases new funding for—Farm Bill conservation programs, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, chronic wasting disease surveillance and research, and critical infrastructure projects from the Everglades to the Front Range.
The ball is now in the Senate’s court to support conservation in their own appropriations bills and send it all to the president’s desk. What happens if they don’t? The government shuts down while they agree on a deal or lawmakers can give themselves an extension by passing what’s known as a continuing resolution. CRs keep money flowing at previously agreed upon funding levels, but they prevent new funding going to something like CWD research that has never been done before.
Before leaving town, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously passed a new highway bill that includes a powerful new tool for conservation: a $250-million pilot program to construct wildlife crossings such as overpasses, underpasses, and culverts across the country over the next five years.
State departments of transportation, wildlife biologists, and conservationists have been urging Congress to provide dedicated funding for crossings to restore and improve habitat connectivity within migration corridors and reduce deadly wildlife-vehicle collisions where animals are often found crossing roads.
This also marks the first time that climate change language has been included in a highway bill. As written, the legislation creates a grant program called PROTECT to prioritize natural infrastructure solutions as roads and bridges are being planned, which would help to restore and improve ecosystem conditions around passenger roads.
All in all, senators on the committee have been trailblazers for conservation in the next iteration of the highway bill. Now, it’s on the House to get the job done.
In fact, the House can do even more for conservation in its forthcoming version of the bill by increasing funding for the Federal Lands Transportation Program, which supports the ongoing maintenance of passenger roads through public lands. Carrying on the chronic underfunding of U.S. Forest Service roads through FLTP will contribute to an already colossal deferred maintenance backlog on these important public lands.
The TRCP and our conservation partners have been leading the charge to update a vital source of funding for state fish and wildlife agency conservation efforts—the Pittman-Robertson Act. Right now, the fund created from excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, and archery equipment can’t be used to help recruit, retain, and reactivate (R3) hunters.
It’s time for that to change.
Congress has already updated the policy for fishing-related spending to give state agencies the ability to recruit new anglers. And this has likely helped to drive the recent bump in fishing participation and a more than 36-percent increase in spending on fishing equipment, which in turn creates an increase in funding for conservation.
It’s time for Congress to modernize Pittman-Robertson and allow similar outreach campaigns for hunters. Before the recess began, the Senate introduced S. 2092, a companion bill to the House’s H.R. 877. These bipartisan bills, aptly titled the Modernizing the Pittman-Robertson Fund for Tomorrow’s Needs Act, are essential to help fund, preserve, and grow our rich heritage of hunting.
Last Congress, a similar measure passed unanimously out of the House but did not make the end-of-year finish line. Now that the legislation has been introduced in both chambers, passage of this long-overdue legislation is a no-brainer. It’s a bipartisan success story waiting to happen.
From the Gulf to the Great Plains, there’s a lot happening this summer that affects our fisheries and the anglers who enjoy them, including pending legislation that deserves a vote without further delay.
The National Fish Habitat Through Partnerships Act—H.R. 1747 in the House and S. 754 in the Senate—would permanently authorize and provide funding for one of the nation’s best tools to protect and restore fish habitat across the nation. Comprised of 20 individual partnerships that advocate for regionally specific projects, this model has been effective for years but still limps from authorization to authorization, depending on the whims of Congress.
But legislation introduced in both chambers is vote-ready and can end this vicious cycle.
Another easy win would be passing legislation to conserve forage fish, which support all the sportfish we love to pursue. Numerous pressures, including changing ocean conditions and overfishing by commercial interests, have led to a decline in forage fish populations, which could shorten or even end recreational fishing seasons for the predators that rely on these baitfish.
Bipartisan legislation in the House, the Forage Fish Conservation Act (H.R. 2236), aims to ensure that forage fish remain in the marine food web by introducing a variety of commonsense, science-based provisions into existing management plans. These include creating a national, science-based definition for forage fish in federal waters, accounting for predator needs, assessing the impact of commercial fisheries on marine ecosystems before authorization, and requiring that managers consider forage fish when establishing research priorities.
Anglers are dependent on forage fish to keep our fisheries healthy and we are, in turn, depending on Congress to act now on this major conservation priority.
Numerous conservation-wins-in-waiting are ready for congressional action once lawmakers return to Capitol Hill. Though the most pressing demand for legislators will be drafting and passing appropriations bills that strengthen our nation’s investment in conservation, we need to turn their attention to other measures that preserve wildlife, improve habitat connectivity, and ensure the future of our hunting traditions.
After the spending deadline has passed, the 2020 election will take a lot of the air out of the room, and we need to clinch these victories before that happens.
This is YOUR chance to play a role in how our public lands are managed and ensure that sportsmen and women have a say about the places where we love to hunt and fish
The Forest Service is revising its plans for the Carson and the Santa Fe National Forests that will determine the future management of more than 3 million acres of public land in northern New Mexico, including the world-class fisheries of the Rio Grande and Pecos Rivers. Sportsmen and women must get involved to ensure that the best habitats are conserved and public access for hunting and fishing is maintained.
Please attend a local public meeting in the next few weeks (see schedule below) and share your perspective as a public land user.
These events will offer updates on the planning process, allow the public to share their ideas and opinions on the draft plan, and explain ways for interested citizens to stay involved.
The best way to see that our priorities are included in the plans is to have a presence and provide input at these meetings. Meeting dates, locations, and times, as well as suggested talking points are listed below.
Thank you for taking the time to support our public lands.
Suggested Talking Points:
|Santa Fe||Tuesday, Aug. 20||2 – 6pm||Santa Fe Community College (this is a joint meeting with the Santa Fe, Carson, and Cibola National Forests)|
|Jemez Pueblo||Wednesday, Aug. 21||6 – 8pm||Pueblo of Jemez Welcome Center (back building; formerly Walatowa Visitor’s Center), 7413 Highway 4|
|Buena Vista||Thursday, Aug. 22||6 – 8pm||Buena Vista Fire Department|
|Pecos||Monday, Aug. 26||6 – 8pm||Pecos High School (Boardroom)|
|Gallina||Tuesday, Sept. 3||6 – 8pm||Gallina Elementary|
|Rio Rancho||Wednesday, Sept. 4||6 – 8pm||Rio Rancho Fire and Rescue, 5301 Santa Fe Hills Blvd.|
|Cuba||Thursday, Sept. 5||6 – 8pm||Sandoval County Fairgrounds- Community Building, 37 Rodeo Rd.|
|Las Vegas||Tuesday, Sept. 10||6 – 8pm||NM Highlands University (student union building, Rm 321)|
|Santa Fe||Wednesday, Sept. 11||6 – 8pm||Santa Fe NF Headquarters, 11 Forest Lane|
|Los Alamos||Monday, Sept. 23||6 – 8pm||Mesa Public Library|
|Abiquiu||Wednesday, Sept. 25||6 – 8pm||Ghost Ranch (lower pavillion), 280 Private Drive|
|Santa Fe||Tuesday, Aug. 20||2 – 6pm||Santa Fe Community College (this is a joint meeting with the Santa Fe, Carson, and Cibola National Forests)|
|Taos||Wednesday, Aug. 21||12 – 2pm||Carson NF Supervisor’s Office|
|Buena Vista||Thursday, Aug. 22||6 – 8pm||Buena Vista Fire Department|
|Canjilon||Wednesday, Aug. 28||5 -7pm||Canjilon Community Center|
|El Rito||Wednesday, Aug. 28||1 – 3pm||El Rito Ranger District Office|
|Bloomfield||Thursday, Aug. 29||1 – 3pm||Jicarilla Ranger District Office|
|Farmington||Thursday, Aug. 29||5 – 7pm||San Juan College|
|Tres Piedras||Friday, Aug. 30||1 – 3pm||Tres Piedras Ranger District Office|
|Red River||Tuesday, Sept. 3||5 – 7pm||Red River Convention Center|
|Peñasco||Wednesday, Sept. 4||1 – 3pm||Camino Real Ranger District Office|
|Peñasco||Tuesday, Sept. 10||5 – 7pm||Camino Real Ranger District Office|
|Questa||Wednesday, Sept. 11||1 – 3pm||Questa Ranger District Office|
|Canjilon||Thursday, Sept. 12||1 – 3pm||Canjilon Ranger District Office|
|El Rito||Thursday, Sept. 12||5 – 7pm||Northern NM College|
|Taos||Tuesday, Sept. 17||4 – 7pm||Sagebrush Inn (this will be a facilitated, topic-driven workshop)|
|Abiquiu||Thursday, Sept. 19||6 – 8pm||Ghost Ranch (lower pavillion), 280 Private Drive|
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.Learn More