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Landmark new legislation in Congress promises to bring public land access into the 21st century
Digital mapping and GPS technologies have revolutionized the ways in which sportsmen and women navigate public lands. By pinpointing a user’s real-time location on the landscape, handheld GPS units and smartphone applications allow hunters and anglers to know exactly where they stand relative to property boundaries and other key landmarks.
Unfortunately, when it comes to public lands, incomplete and inconsistent mapping data prevents hunters and anglers as well as land management agencies—including the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and Army Corps of Engineers—from utilizing the full benefit of these technologies.
But a bipartisan bill recently introduced into both chambers of Congress promises to bring our public land mapping records into the 21st century. Here’s how the Modernizing Access to our Public Land (MAPLand) Act would do that.
Most recreational opportunities on public lands are identified in agency management plans and appear on agency-produced paper maps that show, for instance, roads and trails open to different types of motorized and non-motorized vehicles. Sometimes alongside a national forest road you’ll see a sign marking a zone where hunting or recreation shooting is, such as near a campground or forest service ranger station. Other times you’ll pull up to a mountain lake parking lot and a sign is posted that specifies horsepower restrictions for boats.
While some of this information might, in certain places, be available in a GPS-compatible format, in most places it is not. As a result, it is difficult for the general public to find specific information about available recreation opportunities on their public lands without spending considerable time exploring public lands to ground-truth areas or poring over volumes of agency documents. Sometimes, a person might avoid hunting in an area altogether simply because they can’t tell by looking at a sign where the shooting boundary starts and ends. Many members of the public might also avoid driving on an open road because the existing sign long ago went missing and they don’t want to inadvertently break the rules.
A lack of modern information about recreational access opportunities on public lands is resulting in lost days afield, and in the 21st century, sportsmen and women should be able to reference their handheld GPS or other mapping units so that they can instantly know the rules for recreation and where the boundaries of restricted areas are located within a matter of feet. Such measures would not only help busy Americans discover new recreation opportunities and give them confidence to enjoy the outdoors, but it would also reduce conflicts and the likelihood that outdoor enthusiasts will break the rules.
This need for better information is what the MAPLand Act is designed to address by providing funding and guidance to our land management agencies to digitize mapping information about outdoor recreation. This includes, among other things, seasonal allowances and restrictions for vehicle use on public roads and trails; boundaries of areas where hunting or recreational shooting is regulated or closed; and portions of rivers and lakes on federal land that are closed to entry, closed to watercraft, or have horsepower limitations for watercraft.
Millions of acres of federal public lands across the country have restricted access, particularly in areas with mixed public and private landownership. In the West alone, more than 9.52 million acres of federal public lands have no permanent legal means of access and permission to access to public lands across private property can be difficult to obtain.
In many places where public land trail and road access exists across private land, it was established by a legal agreement known as an easement, in which an agency such as the BLM or Forest Service formally acquired the permanent right for the public to travel a designated route (such as a road or trail) across private land.
Many of the agencies’ records of access easements across private lands are still held on paper files at local offices and cannot be easily accessed or reviewed. The Forest Service alone has an estimated 37,000 recorded easements, but only 5,000 have been digitized and uploaded into an electronic database.
Currently, the federal land management agencies lack the resources and capacity to digitize and standardize these records. Because of this, it is difficult for hunters and anglers to understand the full extent of access opportunities. And when they are not used, public rights-of-way can be forgotten by the public and the agency alike.
MAPLand would require our public land agencies to digitize records of easements or rights-of-way across private lands, making it possible for the public to understand where public access has been formally secured in legal records. Doing so would both help expand public access opportunities and reduce conflict with landowners, because everyone would have factual information about access allowances and restrictions.
In addition, by giving land managers a comprehensive picture of all available access points, they can fulfill their mission to identify public lands with limited or nonexistent public access, and take proactive steps in cooperation with private landowners to open those lands to the public. Conservation groups and land trusts that have been working on access issues will be able to use this data to identify priority areas and work more efficiently to expanding opportunities on our public lands.
Elected officials need to know how much MAPLand would mean to hunters and anglers. Write your lawmakers today and ask them to support public land access!
Top photo: Rick Hutton
President and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Whit Fosburgh issued the following statement on the spread of COVID-19:
“As communities across the world are impacted by COVID-19, we want to reiterate our commitment to our staff, our partners, our donors, and the sportsmen and women who are all ‘in the arena’ working together on behalf of conservation. Your health is our top priority.
During this time, we are adjusting our operations to keep our community safe, so we can continue the important work of guaranteeing all Americans quality places to hunt and fish. All TRCP staff are being encouraged to work from home. Travel has been suspended and in person meetings are being replaced with virtual meetings. Our Capital Conservation Awards Dinner has been moved from April to September. Through this time, we will continue to engage in policy that matters to all sportsmen and women.
As President Theodore Roosevelt said, ‘In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.’ ”
Image courtesy of Charlie Bulla
Here’s why MAPLand could be a game-changer for unlocking inaccessible public lands
When onX and TRCP teamed up in 2018 to study the issue of landlocked federally managed public lands in the West, we highlighted several priorities that needed to be addressed by agencies and lawmakers in order to work on opening access to the 9.52 million acres of public lands in the West where it currently does not exist.
Here’s what we had to say about the need for digitized, standardized easement data, which helps explain why the MAPLand Act is such a critical piece of legislation.
Legislation invests in digitized, integrated mapping resources for outdoor recreation
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is hailing landmark legislation that will enhance outdoor recreation on public lands by investing in modern technology that allows sportsmen and women to know exactly which lands and waters they can access.
U.S. Senators Martha McSally (R-Ariz) and Angus King (I-Maine) and U.S. Representatives Derek Kilmer (D-Wash) and Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho) today introduced the Modernizing Access to Our Public Land (MAPLand) Act to digitize recreational access information and make those resources available to the public.
Currently, many of the easement records that identify legal means of access onto national forests or BLM-managed lands are stored at the local level in paper files, which makes it difficult for hunters, anglers, and even the agencies to identify public access opportunities. Of 37,000 existing easements held by the U.S. Forest Service, only 5,000 have been converted into digital files.
The MAPLand Act would direct federal land management agencies to consolidate, digitize, and make publicly available recreational access information as GIS files. These records would include information about legal easements and rights-of-way across private land; year-round or seasonal closures on roads and trails, as well as restrictions on vehicle-type; boundaries of areas where special rules or prohibitions apply to hunting and shooting; and areas of public waters that are closed to watercraft or have horsepower restrictions.
“GPS technology has become an essential part of the public-land user’s toolkit,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “This bill will allow sportsmen and women to take full advantage of the world-class opportunities on our public lands, make it easier to follow the rules while recreating outside, and reduce access conflicts. Quite simply, this is a common-sense investment in the future of hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation. We want to thank Senators McSally and King and Representatives Fulcher and Kilmer for taking the lead on this important legislation.”
In addition to improving the public’s ability to access public lands, the bill would help land management agencies — in cooperation with private landowners — prioritize projects to acquire new public land access or improve existing access. According to a 2018 report by the TRCP and onX, a digital-mapping company, more than 9.52 million acres of federally managed public lands in the West lack permanent legal public access because they are surrounded entirely by private lands. Digitizing easement records would be the first step towards addressing this challenge systematically.
What Others Are Saying:
“Public land recreation has been revolutionized by handheld GPS technology in smartphones and other devices, allowing users of all types and experience levels to know where they stand in the outdoors. After spending over a decade gathering recreation information for our customers and making it easily discoverable, we continue to find valuable recreation information that exists only on paper. The data need to be complete, easy to find, and easy to use for the public to fully understand the recreation opportunities available to them. The MAPLand Act is a much-needed investment in the outdoor recreation industry and in the future of empowering the public to get outside and experience our public lands.”
— Eric Siegfried, Founder, onX
“The Mule Deer Foundation commends Senators McSally and King and Representatives Fulcher and Kirby on the introduction of the Modernizing Access to Our Public Land Act. This important legislation will do a great deal to assist sportsmen and women in identifying places where they can hunt and fish on the public lands that they as taxpayers own. All told, this is a common-sense and long-overdue idea that will benefit sportsmen and women, as well as the communities all across our country with economies driven by outdoor-recreation spending.”
— Miles Moretti, President/CEO, The Mule Deer Foundation
“Quality hunting and fishing opportunities have two requirements: healthy habitat and access. This bill makes sure that information about public land access and areas open for hunting and fishing is kept current and readily available for sportsmen and women. We want to ensure that all Americans can enjoy the world-class sporting opportunities found on public lands and this legislation will help to ensure just that.”
— Steve Kandell, Director, Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project
“Access is one of the most important aspects for a thriving outdoor recreation economy. Yet, it isn’t just access to land and water, it’s also access to information about the very lands we recreate on, where they are, when and how they are accessible and oftentimes this data is antiquated or even inaccurate. In order for us to continue to grow this important sector that makes up 2.2% of the national GDP and employs 5.2 million Americans, we need to know where we can get outside on public and private lands and when and how to best protect them. Modernizing Access to our Public Land Act will help us do just that and improve the information we have to safely enjoy all that outdoor recreation has to offer. ORR is proud to support this legislation.”
— Jessica Wahl, Executive Director, Outdoor Recreation Roundtable
Image courtesy of National Parks.
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