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Landlocked doesn’t necessarily mean access is lost for good
It would be a mistake to see the results of our latest landlocked study with onX and think that all hope of accessing these lands is lost. In fact, with excellent news coming out of Oregon this week—a strategic land acquisition is helping to open a combined 13,000 acres of public lands to hunters and anglers there—sportsmen and women have a lot to look forward to.
Knowing the full scope of the landlocked problem is one step toward finding the best possible solutions. Here are four ways that Western states are already working to chip away at the 15.8 million landlocked acres that we’ve identified so far.
Since they received their original land grants, many states have consolidated their trust lands to make them more manageable and profitable. This has been achieved through both land acquisitions and exchanges, whereby the state trades its own lands to another entity for lands in a more desirable location.
Some state natural resource departments have acquired road access easements simply to make it easier to manage previously landlocked parcels. But as access across private lands has become increasingly difficult for sportsmen and women to obtain, these efforts also offer benefits to the public-land hunter or angler.
Now, states have begun to open landlocked state trust lands to public access not just as an ancillary benefit of more streamlined management, but for the expressed purpose of creating more outdoor recreation opportunities. And this is great news for those of us who need more places to hunt and fish close to home.
One of the most powerful steps a state can take to open landlocked state lands is to assign dedicated staff and/or establish specific programs to address access challenges.
Montana has been a leader on this front, having taken several steps to increase access to state trust lands. While many states have recently created positions focused on serving and expanding outdoor recreation, Montana took the additional step of creating a new role for a public access specialist tasked with expanding access to public lands—both state and federal. This person’s responsibilities include helping the state prioritize and complete access acquisition projects and collaborating with landowners and agency land managers to find common ground around the access issue.
What’s more, the public access specialist has a number of programs at his or her disposal. One such program is the Montana Public Lands Access Network (MTPLAN), which was created by the legislature in 2017 to “facilitate collaboration” and “enhance public access throughout the state.” Through the MTPLAN, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation awards grants to eligible groups specifically to acquire public access easements across private lands and open up landlocked or difficult-to-access public lands for recreation.
While the MT-PLAN would benefit from more robust funding, it stands as a praiseworthy effort that other states could follow. And Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has several other programs—including Unlocking Public Lands and the Public Access to Lands Act—that serve to expand access to the state’s 5.2 million acres of trust lands.
Walk-in access programs, such as Idaho’s “Access Yes” and New Mexico’s “Open Gate,” have long been popular with sportsmen and women for their ability to expand hunting opportunities on private lands. These programs are administered by individual state fish and wildlife agencies, which generally enter into short-term contracts with individual private landowners to make their lands available to the public, typically for hunting.
Each program is different, and Nevada is the only state in the Mountain West without one.
Traditionally used only for private land access, state walk-in programs have taken on a new importance as a powerful tool for opening pathways to landlocked state and federal lands. Several states, including Wyoming and Arizona, are deliberately using these programs to open access to landlocked public lands—including state trust lands—by securing leases on private lands that encompass or are adjacent to otherwise inaccessible public lands.
This isn’t a permanent solution, because the access agreements require perpetual renewal, but walk-in programs can be especially valuable in opening smaller and more isolated parcels of state and federal lands that would be difficult or impractical to unlock by any other means. These state programs are generally funded through license dollars or the federal Farm Bill’s Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program.
Continued and even increased funding for both sources could be fundamental to supplying more public walk-in access. That means recruiting more license-buying sportsmen and women, supporting R3 efforts, and recognizing the important benefits of VPA-HIP in time for the next farm bill debate.
We’ve been a bit of a broken record on this one, but can you blame us? According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 40,000 individual grants and $4.1 billion in LWCF funds have been provided to states and localities to acquire and develop outdoor recreation facilities. And LWCF state dollars—a mandated 40 percent of allocated program funding—can be directed toward unlocking state lands for recreational access right now.
The more funding Congress directs to the LWCF, the bigger chunk of the pie is available to the states, and that’s why we’re pushing for the maximum of $900 million to flow into the LWCF coffers annually, without future quibbling about whether that’s the right amount.
Remember: Oil and gas companies are already handing over $900 million a year for this purpose. But in the past 50 years, more than $20 billion in LWCF funds have been diverted elsewhere.
Support the original promise of the LWCF and the opportunity to unlock inaccessible public lands to which we have every right. Take action now to urge Congress to fully fund this critical access tool.
Top photo by Tom Fowlks.
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.
We’re happy to announce that one of those projects, initiated in 2014 by Western Rivers Conservancy, was just completed on Thirty Mile Creek above its confluence with the John Day River in central Oregon.
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.
Looking forward, hunters and anglers should be encouraged not just by the new public land opportunities in central Oregon, but by the knowledge that we can make progress on the landlocked problem with collaborative, proven solutions. Stand up for LWCF funding to ensure that this progress can be made where you live.
Top photo: Western Rivers Conservancy
New executive order on migration corridors will help conserve big game herds and protect Colorado’s investment in wildlife
Sportsmen/women organizations today gathered in Idaho Springs to support Governor Jared Polis’ executive order to preserve historic migration corridors and winter ranges, along with family hunting and fishing traditions for future generations.
The order directs state departments to coordinate with federal, state, and local governments, private landowners, sportsmen and women, and others to protect wildlife through conservation of migration corridors. The long-term effort directs state departments to explore scientific mapping, historical information, and partnerships that will streamline habitat protection efforts.
Rapid growth in Colorado has created barriers and obstacles to migration corridors for bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, antelope, mule deer, elk, and even trout. The governor’s order allows departments to incorporate planning and public education and to use government resources more efficiently in order to both protect wildlife and prevent wildlife-vehicle traffic collisions in the future. Hunting, fishing, and other wildlife-related recreation opportunities are a large part of our healthy Colorado economy and generate more than $5 billion in annual economic output. Protecting wildlife corridors from development is good for sportsmen and our economy.
Gov. Polis’ executive order will ensure that growth in Colorado is balanced, while preserving our western sporting traditions.
Colorado sportsmen/women groups had high praise for Gov. Polis’ leadership:
“As someone who has hunted across the West, I am deeply appreciative of Governor Polis’ executive order. Protecting migration corridors protects our sporting traditions and the wildlife all Coloradans enjoy. This is a seminal moment in our state’s conservation history that will be celebrated for generations to come,” said Kassi Smith, Artemis Ambassador for Colorado, National Wildlife Federation.
“Trout Unlimited is thrilled to work with a governor so dedicated to protecting fish and wildlife. Gov. Polis’ innovative vision to dedicate funding and create partnerships to develop important wildlife migration routes and protect migration corridors and riparian areas crucial to wildlife health is lauded by sportsmen in Colorado,” said Scott Willoughby, Colorado coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s Sportsman’s Conservation Project.
“The vision and specific directives of this executive order will help spur collaboration between state and federal agencies, private landowners, non-profit organizations and other stakeholders so that Colorado’s irreplaceable big game migration corridors and winter range are maintained,” said Suzanne O’Neill, executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation.
“Migration corridors are essential for healthy herds and wildlife habitat. Since 2001, Colorado has lost more than half a million acres of habitat due to development and our growing population. Governor Polis’ executive order has given sportsmen and women a valuable tool to protect migration corridors, and BHA thanks the governor for his leadership on this issue,” said Don Holmstrom, co-chair of the Colorado chapter of the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.
“Migration corridor conservation is a significant challenge facing our wildlife and hunting heritage, and Governor Polis’ executive order sets Colorado apart as a leader on this issue. Sportsmen and women appreciate the governor’s leadership, and we stand ready to work with state and federal agencies, landowners, and industry to ensure our big game herds can continue to access the seasonal habitats they need to thrive,” said Madeleine West, deputy director of Western lands for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
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.
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