Unlocked! 13K+ Acres of New and Previously Inaccessible Public Land Open in Oregon
Successful use of the Land and Water Conservation Fund in Oregon offers a case study in how to open landlocked lands
When we joined forces with onX to dig into the issue of inaccessible federal public lands last year, we identified several places where public agencies, land trusts, and private landowners working together were already on the cusp of opening landlocked public lands using the Land and Water Conservation Fund. With 15.87 million inaccessible state and federal acres, it’s certainly a daunting challenge, but workable solutions can make a meaningful difference for hunters and anglers.
This marks a huge win for sportsmen and women. On August 20, WRC conveyed two ranches to the Bureau of Land Management, effectively adding 11,148 acres of hunting and fishing grounds to the public trust, unlocking 2,323 acres of entirely landlocked BLM lands, and improving access to an additional 75,000 hard-to-reach public acres.
The John Day and its tributaries offer world-class steelhead and smallmouth bass fishing in a unique high-desert setting. Elk, mule deer, and bighorn sheep hunters lucky enough to draw a tag in the area are certain to find a memorable experience in this steep and rugged country. The previous landowners charged a fee to those looking for access to the river, and whoever owned these properties had every right to close that access at their discretion.
Sportsmen and women now have permanent legal access to the John Day River at Thirtymile Creek and new access to a huge expanse of public land above and below the tributary, much of which had previously only been accessible via a multi-day float.
The lands now under BLM management were acquired by WRC from willing, conservation-minded sellers, and an $8-million allocation from the Land and Water Conservation Fund allowed these acres to pass into public hands. These properties include vital habitat for California bighorn sheep and steelhead, offering fish and wildlife managers new opportunities for improvement projects that will safeguard the future of these vulnerable species.
All told, Western Rivers Conservancy’s Thirtymile Creek project stands as a shining example of what can be accomplished now that the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been permanently reauthorized. It should also remind sportsmen and women that our ability to unlock inaccessible public lands will be determined by whether or not Congress fully funds the program in perpetuity by supporting H.B. 3195 in the House and S. 1081 in the Senate.
How So Many Western State and Federal Public Lands Became Landlocked
This access challenge has become apparent thanks to recent advances in GPS technology, but the origin of the landlocked problem goes back to the early days of Western statehood
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.
State Lands Destined to Be Landlocked
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.
How Federal Public Lands Became Isolated and Checkerboarded
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 19thcentury. 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.
A Quick Word About the Biggest Difference Between State and Federal Lands
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 extremistminority 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.
A Solution with Bipartisan Support
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.
New Study Reveals 6.35 Million Acres of Western State Lands Are Landlocked
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.
“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.”
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.
Listen: Landlocked Public Lands and Access Across the West
The TRCP’s Joel Webster was featured on America Outdoors Radio to discuss the issue of inaccessible state and federal lands and what hunters and anglers can do to secure more public land opportunities for themselves and future generations. (The segment begins around the 22-minute mark.)
Give it a listen below, or download this episode on your favorite podcast app for your next roadtrip. And be sure to visit UnlockingPublicLands.org, where you can sign up to receive our new report when it’s released later this summer!
Coloradans: Tell the BLM to Prioritize Public Land Hunting and Fishing
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
Bureau of Land Management lands in the Arkansas and South Platte River drainages offer world-class trout fishing, provide crucial habitat for Colorado’s most iconic critters, and offer some of the best backcountry hunting opportunities near the Front Range.
The BLM is in the process of revising a plan that will guide management on 668,000 acres of these public lands over the next 20 years, and sportsmen and women need to speak up.
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 plan 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.
Where and When
SteamPlant Event Center, 220 W. Sackett Ave, Salida, CO 81201
The Abbey Event Center, Benedict Room, 2951 East Hwy 50, Canon City, CO 81212
Fairplay Community Center, 880 bogue Street, Fairplay, CO 80440
Washington School, Auditorium, 201 E. Fifth Street, Walsenburg, CO 81089
Denver Marriott West, Monart Room, 1717 Denver West Blvd., Golden, CO 80401
Westside Community Center, 1628 W. Bijou Street, Colorado Springs, CO 80904
Greeley Recreation Center, Room 101 ABC, 651 10th Ave, Greeley, CO 80631
Suggested Talking Points
Conservation of unfragmented, functional habitats: I ask that the BLM safeguard our best hunting and fishing areas by adopting the Backcountry Conservation Area management tool that would conserve important big game habitat, prioritize active habitat restoration and enhancement, and support important public access for hunting and other forms of recreation.
Conservation of big game migration corridors and seasonal habitat: I request that the BLM take steps to ensure the conservation of identified big game migration corridors and winter range. This should include not only conserving corridors that have already been mapped and analyzed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, but also in ensuring that the RMP is able to conserve migration corridors that will be mapped in the future.
Public access: Public access is necessary for outdoor recreation. I encourage the BLM to identify opportunities to increase access to public lands that are landlocked or difficult to access because there are few or no access points across private land that enable the public to reach BLM lands.
Community-driven planning: I support conservation measures to maintain the scenic, wildlife, and recreational values of the South Park valley. The management direction for this iconic Colorado landscape should align closely with the community recommendations developed by local stakeholder groups and the county.
As our nation rebounds from the COVID pandemic, policymakers are considering significant investments in infrastructure. Hunters and anglers see this as an opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations.