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A closer look at areas with high concentrations of inaccessible state and federal parcels that could be unlocked to dramatically improve sportsmen’s opportunities
By now we know that more than 9.5 million acres of federal public lands—those overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for example—are entirely surrounded by private land and therefore inaccessible to sportsmen and women. An additional 6.35 million acres of state lands are similarly landlocked.
As much as it helps to have this data—which was not available before our first-of-its-kind collaboration with onX over the past two years—the problem can seem overwhelming until you look at specific examples of these landlocked parcels, how they got this way, and what can be done to unlock them.
If you missed our history lesson on shifting land ownership patterns across the West, get caught up here. But if you’re looking for examples of places where tackling access challenges head-on could make a huge difference for hunters and anglers, read on.
Closed by State Policy in Colorado
Colorado stands apart from other mountain states when it comes to access to its trust lands. State rules currently do not allow the public to use or cross 2.22 million of the state’s 2.78 million acres of trust lands for any activity, including hunting and fishing.
In cooperation with the State Land Board, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has made a commendable effort to improve the access situation by leasing 558,000 acres of state trust lands for sportsmen’s access, and an additional 77,000 acres were just opened last week for the 2019 hunting season.
Colorado has perhaps the single-greatest opportunity to expand public access to outdoor recreation, and in doing so could help fulfill its obligations to generate revenue from trust lands. Colorado could begin by opening the 1.78 million acres of trust lands that are accessible but closed to activities like hunting and fishing and continue this work by establishing new access to the state’s 435,000 acres of landlocked trust lands. In accomplishing this, Colorado would create new possibilities for outstanding outdoor recreation and unleash the full potential of its economy
So Much Potential in Southeast Montana
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 inaccessible without permission 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 landlocked parcels in these areas would both expand hunting opportunities and benefit small-town economies.
A potential solution is ready-made in the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which must include at least $15 million annually for the purpose of expanding recreational access.
While the scale of the problem can seem overwhelming, progess on this issue is possible. A monumental access project we highlighted last year in Oregon has already been completed with LWCF funds.
Help us support more access wins across the West. Take action and urge Congress to fully fund the LWCF now!
Top photo: Nick Venture of Become 1
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.
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