Unlocking Inaccessible Public Lands Doesn’t Require Landowners to Give Up Their Property Rights
When it comes to improving access to landlocked public lands, we should work with—not against—private landowners
Since we first started our work with onX on the issue of landlocked public lands, we’ve heard many variations on the same question—from the comments section of our blogs to discussions with partners and decision-makers. The answer will not only set minds at ease, but it will also help lessen any harsh divide between the sportsmen and women who need better public lands access and the Americans fortunate enough to own land that borders public land.
Q: Would unlocking these inaccessible public lands require private landowners to give up their property?
A: The simple answer is no.
There are a wide variety of strategies for opening up landlocked lands that rely on the cooperation of willing landowners and pose no threat to the property rights of others. But because this is a sensitive subject, and there’s potential for misunderstanding, let’s dive a bit deeper into these solutions.
Our work on the landlocked issue has always been guided by two fundamental premises. First, we know that the future of hunting and fishing, conservation funding, and our $887-billion outdoor recreation economy depends on there being suitable public land access. At the same time, we know that private property rights—some of our nation’s most fundamental—are sacred, and landowners have always been some of the strongest allies for not only sportsmen and women but also fish and wildlife.
In bringing attention to the scope of the landlocked public lands challenge across the West, we have never suggested that solutions for public-land users should conflict with the rights of landowners. In fact, the best-available tools with which land trusts, conservation groups, and state and federal agencies can tackle this challenge depend on engaging with private property owners who are willing to work towards a solution.
After all, many Western landowners are hunters themselves and care about the future of our outdoor heritage. Many western landowners have also played important roles in opening public lands through creative voluntary efforts, including access easements, enrolling their lands into block management programs or similar access programs administered by the states, or simply saying “yes” if someone asks to access his or her property.
Though many landlocked public lands could be accessed with permission from surrounding landowners, we don’t believe that this should be all on them. Property owners shouldn’t be expected to provide access, though many generously do.
Even though the vast majority of sportsmen are ethical and conscientious, it’s important to recognize that allowing the public to hunt on or cross one’s land can result—because of the actions of an irresponsible minority—in property damage, disruptions to farm or ranch operations, and all sorts of complicated and time-consuming situations. That’s why, when we unveiled our first landlocked report at the 2018 TRCP Western Media Summit, we invited a local rancher and landowner from southwest Montana to speak about their experiences and give attendees a window into the reality of these challenges.
On the other hand, strategic land acquisitions from willing sellers, mutually beneficial land exchanges, easements of various types, walk-in access programs, and other incentive-based initiatives led by fish and wildlife agencies—all solutions featured in our state and federal landlocked report—either eliminate these challenges or help landowners manage access in a way that works best for them, without trammeling on their rights or diminishing the value of their property.
At the end of the day, even those landowners who are not themselves sportsmen and women share many of our values: clean air, clean water, healthy land, abundant fish and wildlife and the importance of getting the next generation outside. So, while it can be tempting when presented with a difficult challenge to lay blame or point fingers, we would insist that all champions of public land focus on collaborative, cooperative solutions that respect private property rights.
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.
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.
Land Swaps and Smart Acquisitions
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.
Dedicated Staff and Programs
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
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.
Using the Land and Water Conservation Fund
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.
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.
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.