Randall Williams

August 3, 2020

Three Ways to Unlock the Midwest’s Inaccessible Public Lands

These programs could serve as a model for other states with a growing tally of landlocked hunting and fishing areas

These days, thanks to GPS technology, anyone with a smartphone can take advantage of the hunting and fishing opportunities offered by even the smallest parcel of public lands. But what if you stumble across something like this, where there doesn’t seem to be any legal access to reach it?

You might think it’s a mistake, but there are actually more than 300,000 acres of these landlocked public lands in Minnesota and Wisconsin alone. Across the West, there are nearly 16 million landlocked acres.

Sure, you could knock on a few doors and request permission to cross private land into those crosshatched areas. But if access to public lands like these remains exclusive or temporary, we’re tying one hand behind our backs when it comes to recruiting and retaining the participation of new hunters and anglers.

For a Midwestern hunter looking to hang a treestand for whitetails, set up an ambush for turkeys, or work a woodlot for grouse—especially for the first time—a small or overlooked public parcel could be a game-changer. And easy access to a lake shore or riverbank might give a parent the only place they’re be able to teach their kids to fish for walleye, pike, or smallmouth bass.

Strategically unlocking as little as a few dozen inaccessible acres at a time could mean the difference between a young person having a place to hunt or not. A lifelong passion for fishing—and the conservation funding raised by those license purchases—could hang in the balance.

So how are Midwestern states unlocking inaccessible public lands?

Landlocked public lands are best made accessible through cooperative agreements with private landowners that result in land exchanges, acquisitions, and easements, but this critical work cannot be facilitated by land trusts, conservation organizations, and public agencies without funding.

When thinking about opening inaccessible public lands, even small projects can offer big benefits. Here are three programs that support these efforts.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund

The federal LWCF remains the most powerful tool available for establishing and expanding access to public lands and waters. And it just got more powerful, with the recent passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, a bill that fully funds the program at $900 million annually in support of wildlife conservation and outdoor recreation, including $27 million that is dedicated to public access. Importantly, the LWCF is not just limited to federal projects—at least 40 percent of the program must be used for state-driven projects, making it available to help open state- and county-owned lands for public recreation.

Minnesota’s Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund

Established by the voters of Minnesota in 2008, the Outdoor Heritage Fund is supported through the state sales tax. This program empowers projects that protect, enhance, or restore prairies, wetlands, forests, or other habitat, and—when it meets those primary goals—can also be used to open or expand access to inaccessible wildlife management areas managed by Minnesota DNR’s Fish and Wildlife Division. With an estimated $100 million available in 2022, the Outdoor Heritage Fund is a heavy hitter in support of conservation and access.

Wisconsin’s Knowles Nelson Stewardship Program

Created in 1989, this program exists to preserve valuable natural areas and wildlife habitat, protect water quality and fisheries, and expand opportunities for outdoor recreation. With a budget of $33 million in 2019, Knowles Nelson is a major program that, among other things, can help unlock Wisconsin’s state parks, wildlife and fisheries areas and state natural areas. Knowles Nelson is set to expire in 2022 and will need to be renewed by the state legislature. State decision makers need to know the importance of this program for wildlife habitat and public access.

What Sportsmen and Women Can Do

Both Minnesota and Wisconsin have innovative state programs for conserving habitat and improving access that should serve as valuable models for other states looking to do the same. Support local ballot initiatives and state legislation to set aside these dedicated funds where you live.

To ensure the best possible use of the LWCF for unlocking inaccessible public lands, take action here.

SUPPORT THE MAPLAND ACT

To dig into the data we’ve uncovered on inaccessible public lands across the country, click here.

4 Responses to “Three Ways to Unlock the Midwest’s Inaccessible Public Lands”

  1. Roger Cooke

    I absolutely want to know about landlocked land that my tax dollars are supporting but I am blocked from using. These areas appear to amount to public lands held accessible only to those that border it, perhaps intentionally setup this way.

  2. Kimberly L. Lawler

    Are you familiar with public footpaths in the UK? I assume that when speaking about access it is by automobile. I wonder if private property owners might be more open to the idea of a footpath. In the UK, the farmer (for instance) must mow or not plant in a registered public footpath. Many public paths are hundreds of years old. This might be a more amenable way to entice landowners to consider an easement if no motors were aloud; much like a small lake.

    • Randall Williams
      Randall Williams

      Hi Kimberly,
      That’s a great question. Access easements specify how they can be used and by whom. It is true that we often refer to easements in the context of roads and motor vehicles, but many easements that allow access to public lands restrict use to, for instance, a designated footpath. And you’re absolutely right–there are many situations in which an easement providing non-motorized public access might be more agreeable to a landowner than one that allows for motorized travel.
      Thanks!

  3. In NY are national Forest is located on the Delaware River I had friends and campers that were accessing camping zones along the river that can sides with the national Forest and they told me I was trespassing on boy scout property

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Three Ways to Unlock the Midwest’s Inaccessible Public Lands

These programs could serve as a model for other states with a growing tally of landlocked hunting and fishing areas

These days, thanks to GPS technology, anyone with a smartphone can take advantage of the hunting and fishing opportunities offered by even the smallest parcel of public lands. But what if you stumble across something like this, where there doesn’t seem to be any legal access to reach it?

You might think it’s a mistake, but there are actually more than 300,000 acres of these landlocked public lands in Minnesota and Wisconsin alone. Across the West, there are nearly 16 million landlocked acres.

Sure, you could knock on a few doors and request permission to cross private land into those crosshatched areas. But if access to public lands like these remains exclusive or temporary, we’re tying one hand behind our backs when it comes to recruiting and retaining the participation of new hunters and anglers.

For a Midwestern hunter looking to hang a treestand for whitetails, set up an ambush for turkeys, or work a woodlot for grouse—especially for the first time—a small or overlooked public parcel could be a game-changer. And easy access to a lake shore or riverbank might give a parent the only place they’re be able to teach their kids to fish for walleye, pike, or smallmouth bass.

Strategically unlocking as little as a few dozen inaccessible acres at a time could mean the difference between a young person having a place to hunt or not. A lifelong passion for fishing—and the conservation funding raised by those license purchases—could hang in the balance.

So how are Midwestern states unlocking inaccessible public lands?

Landlocked public lands are best made accessible through cooperative agreements with private landowners that result in land exchanges, acquisitions, and easements, but this critical work cannot be facilitated by land trusts, conservation organizations, and public agencies without funding.

When thinking about opening inaccessible public lands, even small projects can offer big benefits. Here are three programs that support these efforts.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund

The federal LWCF remains the most powerful tool available for establishing and expanding access to public lands and waters. And it just got more powerful, with the recent passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, a bill that fully funds the program at $900 million annually in support of wildlife conservation and outdoor recreation, including $27 million that is dedicated to public access. Importantly, the LWCF is not just limited to federal projects—at least 40 percent of the program must be used for state-driven projects, making it available to help open state- and county-owned lands for public recreation.

Minnesota’s Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund

Established by the voters of Minnesota in 2008, the Outdoor Heritage Fund is supported through the state sales tax. This program empowers projects that protect, enhance, or restore prairies, wetlands, forests, or other habitat, and—when it meets those primary goals—can also be used to open or expand access to inaccessible wildlife management areas managed by Minnesota DNR’s Fish and Wildlife Division. With an estimated $100 million available in 2022, the Outdoor Heritage Fund is a heavy hitter in support of conservation and access.

Wisconsin’s Knowles Nelson Stewardship Program

Created in 1989, this program exists to preserve valuable natural areas and wildlife habitat, protect water quality and fisheries, and expand opportunities for outdoor recreation. With a budget of $33 million in 2019, Knowles Nelson is a major program that, among other things, can help unlock Wisconsin’s state parks, wildlife and fisheries areas and state natural areas. Knowles Nelson is set to expire in 2022 and will need to be renewed by the state legislature. State decision makers need to know the importance of this program for wildlife habitat and public access.

What Sportsmen and Women Can Do

Both Minnesota and Wisconsin have innovative state programs for conserving habitat and improving access that should serve as valuable models for other states looking to do the same. Support local ballot initiatives and state legislation to set aside these dedicated funds where you live.

To ensure the best possible use of the LWCF for unlocking inaccessible public lands, take action here.

SUPPORT THE MAPLAND ACT

To dig into the data we’ve uncovered on inaccessible public lands across the country, click here.

Kristyn Brady

July 22, 2020

House Passes Great American Outdoors Act in Historic Win for Public Lands

Once-in-a-generation legislation now heads to President Trump’s desk

In a historic moment for bipartisan support of America’s public lands and waters, the Great American Outdoors Act passed in a 310-107 vote on the House floor today.

The legislation now lands on the president’s desk for signature, which will secure full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Funding at $900 million annually and invest $9.5 billion over the next five years to address the deferred maintenance backlog on our public lands.

“Sportsmen and women who have spoken out for years in support of the LWCF and against the chronic underfunding of our conservation agencies should be very proud to be a part of this historic win for public lands, fish and wildlife habitat, and our hunting and fishing access,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “These issues don’t make the front page every day, which is all the more reason to celebrate the willingness of our lawmakers to prioritize the Great American Outdoors Act with a spirit of urgency and bipartisanship.”

Securing dedicated, full funding for the LWCF has been a major goal of the conservation community for decades. When the LWCF was created, Congress intended for $900 million from offshore oil and gas royalties to be used each year for conservation projects, but this level of funding was never realized and more than $20 billion in LWCF funds have been diverted elsewhere.

Still, in its 50-year history, the LWCF has conserved land in every U.S. state and supported more than 41,000 state and local park projects. It is the best tool we have for unlocking inaccessible public lands that are entirely surrounded by private land with no legal means of access. The TRCP and onX have identified nearly 16 million landlocked acres across the West and plan to release data on six states east of the 100th meridian this year.

In 2019, sportsmen and women celebrated permanent authorization of the fund through the passage of S.47—the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act—which also required that three percent of total LWCF funds, or a minimum of $15 million, be used each year to establish or improve access to public lands. With $900 million annually from the Great American Outdoors Act, $27 million will be dedicated to public land access each year.

Photo by Roy W. Lowe/US Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

The backlog of maintenance projects on National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management lands has grown as conservation’s share of the federal budget has been cut in half over the last 40 years. The crumbling of America’s outdoor recreation infrastructure undermines quality experiences in the outdoors, which could contribute to decreased hunting and fishing participation, fewer license sales, and less conservation funding.

Prioritizing shovel-ready projects during this economic downturn not only revamps sportsmen’s access and opportunities, it can also put people back to work. In this way, the Great American Outdoors Act addresses two of TRCP’s top issues for 2020 and beyond.

“For Americans who are increasingly turning to the outdoors for solace and enjoyment during the pandemic, this vote confirms that our natural resources are worthy of robust investment, especially at a time when conservation and access improvement projects can create much-needed jobs,” says Fosburgh.

Watch our CEO’s message to the thousands of TRCP members who supported the Great American Outdoors Act and Land and Water Conservation Fund by contacting their lawmakers. And check out this video recorded live with Fosburgh before the vote, which highlights just how big this conservation victory is.

Click here to see what TRCP’s partners are saying about the Great American Outdoors Act.

Click here to learn more about a bill that could make a fully funded LWCF even more powerful for public land access.

 

Top photo by Kyle Mlynar.

Randall Williams

July 15, 2020

150+ Hunting and Fishing Companies Ask Congress to Pass the MAPLand Act

Retailers, outfitters, media companies, and gear manufacturers from across the country call on Congress to modernize public land mapping for outdoor recreation

Today, more than 150 hunting- and fishing-related businesses are asking lawmakers to support a bill that would direct federal agencies to standardize, digitize, and disseminate information regarding recreational access and allowable activities on millions of acres of federal public lands throughout the United States.

Representing a vital sector of the $778-billion outdoor recreation economy, business owners from across the country sent a letter that calls on congressional leadership to pass the Modernizing Access to Our Public Land (MAPLand) Act. From gear manufacturers and media companies to guides, outfitters, and retailers, the letter signers emphasized that their livelihoods depend on sportsmen and women having access to outdoor recreation opportunities on public lands.

Introduced into the House (H.R.6169) and Senate (S.3427) earlier this year with bipartisan support, the MAPLand Act would direct federal land management agencies to consolidate, digitize, and make publicly available all recreational access information in a format that can be used with computer mapping programs and GPS applications.

These records include information about:

  • legal easements and rights-of-way across private land;
  • year-round or seasonal closures of 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.

Currently, many of the easement records that identify legal means of access into lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are stored at the local or regional level in paper files. This makes it difficult for hunters, anglers, and even the agencies themselves to identify public access opportunities.

For example, of the 37,000 existing easements held by the U.S. Forest Service, the agency estimates that only 5,000 have been converted into digital files.

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 that acquire new public land access or improve existing access, including through the use of funding from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.

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 is a critical step toward addressing this challenge systematically.

Businesses across the country are counting on lawmakers to move quickly on this common-sense opportunity to strengthen America’s outdoor recreation opportunities. “We’re fortunate in this country to have hundreds of millions of aces of lands where anyone can go out and explore, and these places are important to our customers,” said Thaddeus Kaczmarek, Consumer Experience Leader with Sitka Gear. “The MAPLand Act is a common-sense proposal that would make a big difference for outdoor enthusiasts as well as the businesses that serve them.”

“From the Everglades to the North Cascades, we want to see more anglers getting out and enjoying the world-class experiences that our public lands and waters have to offer,” said Amanda Sabin, Senior Brand Manager with Costa. “Anything that can be done to simplify the challenge of figuring out where to go, and what you can do when you get there, is going to make it easier for people to join our community—and that is a huge driver of economic growth.”

“Our consumers are some of the most relentless hunters and outdoorsmen in the nation, and they rely on access to public lands throughout the year,” said Bruce Pettet, President and Chief Executive Officer of Leupold & Stevens, Inc. “The MAPLand Act would allow them to discover new outdoor opportunities, and help to introduce the next generation to the sporting traditions we all hold dear.”

“Public lands provide hunters and anglers with unrivaled outdoor experiences, and we’re excited to support the MAPLand Act because it will allow more Americans to take full advantage of these opportunities,” said Angie Timm, General Manager and Founder of Seek Outside. “This is a bill that will make a real difference for sportsmen and women all across the country.”

“Archery season is less than two months away, and my customers are already out scouting on our public lands in search of elk and deer,” said Gabe Lucero, owner of Red Rock Archery in Grand Junction, Colorado. “Better information about access opportunities is critical for sportsmen and women to spend more quality days in the field.”

Read the letter from 158 hunting and fishing businesses here.

Learn more about the MAPLand Act here.

Joel Webster

July 10, 2020

The MAPLand Act Would Make a Fully Funded LWCF Even More Powerful

Legislation that requires federal agencies to digitize their public land access data would help us spend Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars more efficiently

Hunters and anglers are celebrating the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act in the House—and with good reason. Once it is signed by the president, the bill becomes law with major benefits for public land users and habitat.

In addition to providing $1.9 billion annually from 2021 to 2025 for much-needed public land maintenance projects, the Great American Outdoors Act will also secure $900 million annually for the most powerful tool we have to improve public lands habitat and access: the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

In a time of political tension and turmoil, it’s impressive that hunters and anglers are accomplishing so much to benefit our outdoor recreation opportunities. It shows that our issues resonate across party lines and with a broad spectrum of Americans. What would make the LWCF victory even sweeter, however, would be the subsequent passage of the bipartisan Modernizing Access to our Public Land, or MAPLand, Act later this year.

Here is why this legislation effectively super-charges the impacts of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

More Than the Minimum for Access

Utilizing receipts from offshore oil and gas development, the Land and Water Conservation Fund is designed to support conservation and outdoor recreation. In 2019, the fund was permanently reauthorized with the passage of S.47—the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act. A provision was included in that legislation requiring that three percent of the total, or a minimum of $15 million, be used each year to establish or improve access to public lands.

With passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, the public access provision increases to $27 million annually.

This access money is being made available because members of Congress realize that many public lands are landlocked and completely inaccessible or difficult to access. You may recall that over the last three years the TRCP has teamed up with onX to study and address this very problem. So far, we’ve found that 15.86 million acres of state and federal lands are landlocked across 13 Western states.

Landlocked public lands can be found in other regions of the U.S., as well. (More on that from us very soon!)

Having resources available through LWCF will be critical in addressing access challenges across the nation in the coming decades. Right now, there are commendable access projects being completed by land trusts and the federal agencies each year, however, these access dollars could be used even more strategically if everyone had a precise understanding of where public access routes exist and where they do not.

This is where the MAPLand Act comes in.

Photo by Raka Rahmadani.
Welcome to the Digital Age

Over the past century, federal land management agencies—including the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management—have actively acquired access easements and established public roads and trails across private lands to unlock inaccessible public lands. These easements or “rights of way” constitute a permanent access right that is controlled by these federal agencies.

However, many of the agencies’ access easement records are still held on paper files at local offices and cannot be integrated into digital mapping systems that allow hunters and anglers to see where public access has been secured.

The U.S. Forest Service alone has an estimated 37,000 recorded easements, but only 5,000 have been digitized and uploaded into its electronic database.

If federal land management agencies are going to make the most of the $27 million in annual access dollars they will receive through a fully funded Land and Water Conservation Fund, they must digitize their access easements. Otherwise, they will not be able to efficiently see where they hold access across private lands or effectively prioritize future access acquisitions.

Truly Creating Access for All

Fortunately, the MAPLand Act would fix this challenge by providing resources and direction so that federal land management agencies can digitize their access easements within a three-year period and make that information available to the public.

When completed, everyone will easily be able to see where permanent public access has already been secured and where it has not, informing future land acquisition projects. This will also help the recreating public to understand where they have a legal right to use a road or trail and where they need to secure permission from a private landowner.

In addition, the MAPLand Act would require that rules related to recreational access on our public lands and waters is standardized and made available digitally. This would mean that smartphone applications and digital mapping systems, like onX Hunt, could reliably point to 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.

Now that Congress has passed the Great American Outdoors Act and permanently committed to the maximum funding LWCF was meant to have, sportsmen and women need one more thing: Swift passage of the MAPLand Act to ensure that available access dollars can be used as effectively as possible to help you access your public lands.

Take action today to get your lawmakers on board.

 

Top photo by John Fowler via flickr.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

WHAT WILL FEWER HUNTERS MEAN FOR CONSERVATION?

The precipitous drop in hunter participation should be a call to action for all sportsmen and women, because it will have a significant ripple effect on key conservation funding models.

Learn More
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