Randall Williams

August 4, 2020

300K Acres of Public Land in Minnesota and Wisconsin Are Inaccessible

With today’s signing of the Great American Outdoors Act fully funding nation’s most important access program, new report details the extent of inaccessible public lands in the Upper Midwest

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and onX announced today that more than 303,000 acres of public land in Minnesota and Wisconsin are entirely landlocked by private land and, therefore, inaccessible to hunters, anglers, and other outdoor recreationists.

The new report is an expansion of a two-year effort to analyze the amount of landlocked public lands in the Pacific and Intermountain West, which to date has shown that nearly 16 million federal and state acres have no permanent legal access because they are isolated by private lands.

The report’s publication is timely in the wake of one of the biggest conservation wins in recent memory. Just today, President Trump signed into law the Great American Outdoors Act, securing full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the federal program best suited to improving and expanding outdoor access to public lands across the country.

The Findings

Using today’s leading mapping technologies, the collaborative study found that more than 248,000 acres of public lands in Minnesota and more than 55,000 acres in Wisconsin are landlocked and inaccessible to the public without private landowner permission. The detailed findings are now available in a new report, “The Upper Midwest’s Landlocked Public Lands: Untapped Hunting and Fishing Opportunities in Minnesota and Wisconsin,” which also unpacks the stakes of the problem and its historical roots.

“Through our ongoing collaboration with onX, we have been able to identify parcels of land that belong to taxpayers, yet they are unable to take advantage of the vast outdoor opportunities on these lands,” said Joel Webster, Senior Director of Western Programs at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “It is our hope that with this information, policymakers can see the problem, identify solutions, and work to ensure that sportsmen and sportswomen can access the lands that belong to them.”

“We know how important public land access opportunities are to hunters and anglers all across the country,” said onX access advocacy manager Lisa Nichols. “Especially in places where the majority of the landscape is privately owned, GPS technologies have enabled outdoor recreationists not only to find new opportunities on public lands, but also to notice landlocked parcels that could offer more of these opportunities if there was a legal way to access them.”

While the analysis looked at public lands managed by different levels of government—including federal, state, county, and municipal—the majority of landlocked acres in both Minnesota and Wisconsin were state lands, followed by combined county/municipal acres. Ranging in size from just a few acres to nearly 4,000 acres, the landlocked acres identified by the project could potentially offer outdoor recreationists in the region new opportunities to get outdoors both in urban and rural areas.

“When it comes to landlocked public lands, even small access projects can make a big difference,” adds Nichols. “Finding collaborative solutions to open some of these lands could offer new opportunities to residents of nearby communities where access to public lands and waters might currently be limited.”

Improved public access is also a driver of the $778 billion outdoor recreation economy. Leading brands in the hunting and fishing industry have long recognized the importance of public lands to their customers and their businesses.

“As a family owned, American sports optics company that is based in Wisconsin, we personally understand the value that public lands provide to our customers and employees for outdoor recreation,” said Paul Neess, conservation/education support specialist with Vortex Optics of Barneveld, Wisconsin. “Landlocked public lands in our state and any other state represent missed days and lost opportunities afield for sportsmen and women, and we support all cooperative efforts to open these lands to the public as they were intended to be.”

The Solutions

With the recent passage of the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act, the Land and Water Conservation Fund will now provide a guaranteed $27 million in annual federal funding for public access work. Additionally, at least 40 percent of the program’s overall $900 million budget must be used for state-driven projects.

The onX-TRCP report further highlights several important programs in Minnesota and Wisconsin that help to create new access for public land users.

Wisconsin’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program funds efforts to conserve habitat and water quality, and also prioritizes expanding opportunities for outdoor recreation. Significantly, the program is set to expire in 2022 unless state lawmakers act to renew the program. Given the program’s 2019 budget of $33 million, its expiration could result in lost or reduced opportunities to expand access in Wisconsin.

Established in 2008, Minnesota’s Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund supports 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.

“Pheasants Forever is actively working to unlock access to public lands across western Minnesota and in other areas of the Midwest, which translates to increased and improved hunting opportunities,” said Eran Sandquist, Minnesota state coordinator with Pheasants Forever. “We work with partners like Minnesota’s Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council to not only conserve wildlife habitat, but also to expand public access, so more sportsmen and women can enjoy quality days afield.”

Additionally, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Strategic Land Asset Management program ensures that the state’s public land holdings reflect its conservation, recreation, and economic values and needs. In an ongoing evaluation process, proposed land acquisitions are measured according to the program’s priorities, including increasing access to public lands.

“In Minnesota, we are very proud of our Strategic Land Asset Management (SLAM) Program and the SLAM framework we have built to ensure public access is evaluated and prioritized on an on-going basis,” said Trina Zieman, the Minnesota DNR’s land asset and school trust administrator. “We appreciate the work done by this collaborative to bring awareness to this issue and identify options that will continue to unlock our public lands for generations of recreationalists.”

Given the level of interest from the public, support from the outdoor industry, and the commitment of state and federal agencies, conservation groups like the TRCP anticipate a bright future for improved and expanded public land access.

“Both states featured in this project have innovative programs for conserving habitat and improving access for hunting and fishing,” said TRCP’s Webster. “It’s our hope that this report highlights the importance of this work to decision makers and the public, especially given the positive effects that it has for families, communities, businesses, and the future of outdoor recreation”

A companion website, unlockingpubliclands.org, unpacks the issue in more detail and provides links to additional information about landlocked public lands. Visitors to the site can download the report as well as the previous reports published by onX and TRCP in 2018 and 2019.

Earlier this year, onX also launched a new crowd-sourcing initiative, Report a Land Access Opportunity, with the help of partners including TRCP. The program provides the public with a platform to share on-the-ground knowledge about locations where access to outdoor recreation has been threatened or could be improved. The information received by onX is then provided to the relevant nonprofits and land management agencies that can help.

 

Top photo: The Hunting Public

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Randall Williams

August 3, 2020

How Midwestern Public Lands Were Landlocked by History

Just like in the West, the history of how lands changed hands has contributed to today’s public access challenges

In the media and in popular imagination, public lands are most closely associated with Western snowcapped peaks managed by the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service or vast expanses of sagebrush prairie managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

But places like the Superior National Forest in Minnesota offer as much of a chance to immerse oneself in adventure as any of the public lands in the West. And for Midwestern hunters and anglers, there are millions of acres of state, county, and locally managed lands that provide critical access close to home.

There are also as many as 300,000 acres of public lands in Minnesota and Wisconsin that are completely surrounded by private land, according to our latest report in partnership with onX. These lands represent lost hunting and fishing opportunities and a national challenge that is unfortunately becoming all too familiar—they’re your public lands, but you can’t get to them without asking someone’s permission.

So how did these public lands become landlocked?

As with other states in the West and Midwest, upon statehood the land base in Minnesota and Wisconsin was organized into six-by-six-mile squares known as townships according to the Public Land Survey System. Each township was further divided into 36 individual one-mile-square (640-acre) sections.

Both states received land grants from the federal government, originally comprised of two sections within each township, which were to be used to support public schools. Following statehood, several subsequent conveyances of federal land were provided to Minnesota and Wisconsin to serve various purposes, such as to support additional state institutions, create state parks and forests, expand agriculture, and retire marginal or unproductive farmland during the Great Depression. Meanwhile, millions of acres reverted back to counties and the states due in part to tax forfeiture.

Later, the Department of Natural Resources in each state began actively purchasing lands to meet management needs, generate revenue, protect critical fish and wildlife habitats, and provide access for sportsmen and women.

There were also vast federal public lands set aside in the Northwoods in the early 20th century, including the Chippewa and Superior National Forests in Minnesota and the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin.

The result today is some of the most diverse public land holdings found anywhere in the nation and, unfortunately, a remnant patchwork of landlocked public lands.

Click here to read about three programs that offer solutions to the landlocked problem in the Midwest.

Take action and dig into the data on the 16.17 million acres of landlocked lands we’ve identified across 15 U.S. states.

VISIT UNLOCKINGPUBLICLANDS.ORG

 

Top photo by Joe D via flickr.

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.

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.

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