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A new report details the extent of inaccessible public lands in the Mid-Atlantic
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and onX announced today that more than 80,000 acres of public land in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey are entirely landlocked by private land and, therefore, inaccessible to hunters, anglers, and other outdoor recreation enthusiasts.
Using today’s leading mapping technologies, the collaborative study found that more than 39,000 acres of public land in New York, 27,000 acres in Pennsylvania, and more than 14,000 acres in New Jersey are landlocked and inaccessible to the public unless private landowners grant individual permissions to cross their properties. The detailed findings are now available in a new report, “The Mid-Atlantic’s Landlocked Public Lands: Untapped Hunting and Fishing Opportunities in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey,” which also unpacks the history of the issue and how these states are working to solve it.
“The issue of landlocked public lands is one that has captured the attention of outdoor recreationists and lawmakers in recent years, and for good reason: These lands belong to everyone, yet they are currently unavailable to the general public,” said Joel Webster, with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Access is absolutely vital to our community and to the future of hunting and fishing. We hope that decision-makers will see this report’s findings as strong evidence that programs to improve and create new access need robust support.”
Of the various types of public land examined by the report, the majority of landlocked acres in each of the three states were state lands, followed by combined county/municipal acres. Ranging in size from just a few acres to several hundred, these parcels could potentially offer recreationists in the region new opportunities to get outdoors both in rural areas and those closer to major urban centers, where there is a growing recognition of the need for outdoor access.
“Public land access is vital to outdoor enthusiasts,” said onX access advocacy manager Lisa Nichols. “Because handheld GPS technologies have made it easier to discover areas of public land—particularly isolated, small, or out-of-the way parcels—these landlocked acres represent lost opportunities that would otherwise be available to all of us. Expanding access to these places would offer very real benefits to communities, especially those in places where the possibilities to get outside and enjoy the outdoors are relatively limited.”
Last month’s passage of the Great American Outdoors Act secured full funding for the most powerful public land access tool, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). As a result, the program 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. This funding can be dedicated to opening landlocked parcels through each state’s State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, part of which prioritizes projects eligible to receive LWCF funding.
The onX-TRCP report further highlights several important state-level programs that help to create new access for public land users.
New York’s Open Space Conservation Plan, established in 2016, prioritizes land acquisitions that fall under seven major types, among which is land that unlocks access to public land beyond. One of the means of supporting these projects is the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, funded by a real-estate tax, which has supplied around $30 million annually for land acquisition in recent years.
“Enhancing access to public lands and quality habitat throughout New York and the mid-Atlantic is absolutely critical to the future of hunting and angling here,” said Todd Waldron, host of the Outdoor Feast Podcast by Modern Carnivore and resident of Chestertown, NY. “Finding places to hunt, fish, and get outside is often cited as the paramount challenge for new hunters, anglers, and outdoor recreationists of all kinds. This great collaborative work by onX and TRCP highlights how landlocked public lands could provide more access opportunities for all New Yorkers to enjoy, ensuring that wildlife and habitat will continue to be supported through hunter and angler conservation funding well into the future.”
Pennsylvania’s Community Conservation Partnerships Program is administered by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and can be used to establish access through conservation easements and state land acquisitions. The program is funded by both the state’s Environmental Stewardship Fund and the federal LWCF. In addition, the state game fund is the primary funding source used by the Pennsylvania Game Commission to acquire state game lands.
“Overseeing more than 2.5 million acres of state park and forestlands, this department prides itself on providing wholesome, healthy outdoor recreation to all, which, since the founding of Pennsylvania’s park system in 1893, always has been free,” said Pennsylvania. Department of Conservation and Natural Resources secretary Cindy Adams Dunn. “Our parks’ record-shattering attendance numbers during the pandemic show people need that access and we commend the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership for its effort to make all public lands accessible to all people.”
“From state game lands to state forests, Pennsylvania’s 5.4 million acres of state lands are critically important for hunting and fishing,” said Derek Eberly, Pennsylvania field representative with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “But sportsmen and women are losing out on days afield with 27,000 of those public acres being landlocked and inaccessible to the public. Thankfully, Pennsylvania has the state game fund and the Community Conservation Partnerships Program to help unlock these lands through cooperative efforts with neighboring private landowners. We owe many of our outdoor opportunities to these programs, and it is critical that they receive robust funding so that Pennsylvania’s hunting and fishing traditions only grow stronger over time.”
Launched in 2019, Connecting Habitat Across New Jersey is an innovative initiative to secure and improve habitat connectivity by establishing corridors between important areas for game and non-game species. By guiding strategic land acquisitions to tie together parcels of public land, this program also facilitates new and improved access for sportsmen and women, particularly in those areas where public lands are isolated and/or fragmented.
“I’m an avid archer who grew up hunting Pennsylvania state game lands, but I’ve lived in New York City for the past 12 years and public lands in New Jersey offer great hunting areas, a lot of them within an hour of the city,” said Kyle VanFleet, a lifelong sportsman and a member of Hunters Helping the Hungry, a New Jersey-based organization that provides venison to food banks across the state. “I’ve been able to harvest many whitetail deer there with my bow. Landlocked public lands present a unique opportunity to expand access to these types of opportunities, especially where they might be currently limited, which is important both for those of us sportsmen and women living in urban areas and also for recruiting new hunters and anglers.”
The new report follows up on last month’s announcement that more than 300,000 acres of public land are inaccessible in Minnesota and Wisconsin. This analysis builds on a two-year effort to calculate the total acreage of landlocked public lands in the Pacific and Intermountain West. To date, a total of 16.25 million acres of these public lands have been identified.
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 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 the 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.
Learn more about the landlocked public lands challenge here.
Photo: Jess Delorenzo
Some states say sage grouse numbers are up, while others have been forced to close popular hunting units—so is it good news or bad news for this iconic gamebird?
As the leaves begin to change, some hunters will experience changes to their opportunities for pursuing sage grouse in parts of the West. Because of lost habitat and fewer birds on the landscape, several states have yet again adjusted their hunting seasons or closed some popular hunting units altogether.
In Colorado, hunters will not be pursuing sage grouse in two of the best units in the state because of lost habitat and fewer birds counted for three consecutive years. Nevada has reduced season lengths considerably across several of its hunt units, closed some due to fire, and offered 40 percent fewer special permits to hunt grouse on the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge.
Idaho, once a major stronghold for sage grouse offering liberal seasons and bag limits, now allows just one bird per day for either a 2- or 7-day season, depending on the unit. Some units have been closed completely. And the Gem State is contemplating moving to a draw system for limited sage grouse licenses, as Oregon and Utah already have.
Oregon recently reduced the number of limited permits available to hunters for the 2020 season. And sage grouse hunting remains closed in parts of Wyoming, the Dakotas, California, and Washington.
At the same time, if you follow such things closely, you would have seen news stories reporting that lek counts—or the number of males seen at breeding grounds that serves as an indication of the overall health of the population—of certain sage grouse populations are up in some places. So, how is a hunter to interpret these reports when facing season closures or changes? Is it good news or bad news for the birds?
It’s the difference between looking at a single moment in time, outside the context of weather and habitat conditions, and considering these numbers within the bigger picture.
In fact, 2020 sage grouse lek counts were mostly similar to 2019, with slight decreases and, yes, some gains across the region. Wyoming, which is home to the largest number of sage grouse, reported a 1.5-percent dip in males attending their leks, while Idaho saw their statewide counts increase by 2.5 percent compared to 2019. Montana was a bright spot in the West, having experienced mostly good habitat conditions, and it showed—more males showed up to the leks.
But most sage grouse totals remain well below 2016 levels. In fact, the long-term trend remains negative, indicating that sage grouse have not yet turned the corner and stabilized or started an increase. Since 1965, counts of males at leks continues to show an average 2-percent range-wide decline each year.
Keep in mind that the 2016 lek counts, which we’re using as the high bar here, would mark the lowest high-point of any on record—so, a spike on the chart, but at the bottom of a steep decline. The 63-percent increase recorded that year, the result of timely precipitation levels and good habitat conditions, was compared to the second-lowest count of lekking males EVER from 2013, when habitat was deep in a multiple-year drought.
The increase was great news at the time, and the 2015 and 2016 hunting seasons were rather spectacular. Personally, I was able to finish off my Wyoming 2-day possession limit of four sage grouse in very short order, give my oldest dog his last grouse retrieve, and do it all in habitat the likes of which I hadn’t seen in some time.
Changes to seasons and bag limits are necessary as a response to the habitat conditions and status of the birds this season, but it’s a letdown for many hunters who have memories, like this, of fantastic sage grouse hunting from their past and as recently as five years ago.
But dry conditions have returned once again to much of the West, and all Western states have recorded steep declines in sage grouse numbers, even if they are seeing a small rebound this year. From 2016 to 2019, there were 30 to 60 percent fewer male sage grouse dancing on their breeding grounds across the eleven states.
We should talk a little about how wildlife managers make the call to cut bag limits or alter seasons. It has been many years since hunting was a primary threat to sage grouse populations at the beginning of the 20th century, but state wildlife agencies generally manage these birds cautiously. Here’s why.
A foundational principle of game bird management is that there are usually similar death rates whether they are hunted or not. The technical term used for this scenario is compensatory mortality, which means that regulated harvest of most game birds compensates for otherwise inevitable mortality from other sources.
Sage grouse are a little different though. They live longer, have much higher over-winter survival than most game birds, and can fly long distances to seek better habitat conditions, if necessary. But they also have a relatively low reproductive output compared to other game birds—most will readily re-nest after losing their first clutch of eggs, while sage grouse often do not. As such, harvest is not always compensatory and may add to other sources of mortality.
State wildlife agencies therefore continually adjust season lengths and bag limits to ensure that less than 10 percent of the estimated total population of sage grouse are harvested each fall.
This is a short-term consequence for hunters, but there are long-term challenges to consider.
While weather conditions are the usual culprit of dramatic short-term fluctuations affecting sage grouse, long-term increases or declines are driven by changes in the amount and quality of habitat. Unfortunately for grouse—and hunters—prime sagebrush habitat continues to be lost at an alarming rate.
Wildfires, often fueled by invasive annual grasses, have consumed millions of acres of sage grouse habitat in recent years. Nevada, for example, has lost nearly 30 percent of its sage grouse habitat to fire over the past 20 years.
Worse yet, researchers estimate that if the current wildfire cycle continues, sage grouse populations could be cut nearly in half over the next 30 years.
According to recent information compiled by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, wildfire is responsible for the loss of about 1 percent of sage grouse core habitat—the best of the best forage, cover, and nesting areas—each year from 2012 to 2019. This doesn’t even account for habitat lost due to energy development, urbanization, or other factors.
In addition to outright loss, some existing habitat is so degraded that it is no longer suitable for sage grouse, and habitat improvement is underfunded. And there remains a huge backlog of restoration needs across the West.
That lost habitat equals fewer birds, and fewer birds ultimately will mean hunters’ seasons may be cut short or perhaps eliminated—at least temporarily.
The crystal ball for sage grouse is somewhat murky, but the future is largely in our control. The question is do we want large expanses of healthy sagebrush habitat across the American West? Do we want to see a thriving sagebrush ecosystem that provides benefits to all – hunters, ranchers, hikers, and, yes, even developers?
Will all Western states ultimately be forced to employ a lottery draw system for sage grouse hunting or continue to close certain areas?
The answer will depend on how we choose the conserve the sagebrush ecosystem. We cannot control drought or harsh winters, but we can do something about improving habitat and ecosystem health.
Conservation is a long-term endeavor that requires commitment and funding to ensure problems are resolved, habitat restored, and populations recover to sustainable levels. For sage grouse, this means full implementation of all state and federal plans conservation strategies and continued incentive programs for private landowners. It means coordinated efforts to combat fire and invasive plants. And it means achieving balance with other uses of the land.
The long-term future of sage grouse and our opportunity to continue hunting them rests on habitat. If we can stop the continual loss of habitat and restore healthy conditions in the sagebrush ecosystem, sage grouse and hunters could see a brighter and more sustainable future.
These programs could serve as positive examples for other states with a growing tally of landlocked hunting and fishing areas
Through TRCP’s unique partnership with onX, we now know that more than 80,000 acres of public land in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are landlocked—completely isolated by private lands with no permanent, legal means of access.
Compared to millions of inaccessible acres in the major public land states out West, this might not seem like much. But the availability of even a few dozen acres of public land close to home can boost our ability to recruit, retain, and reactivate license-buying sportsmen and women.
Fortunately, there are solutions—nationally and specifically in the Mid-Atlantic region. 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 undertaken without funding. When it comes to opening inaccessible public lands, even small projects can offer big benefits.
Here are four key programs that support these efforts.
The 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, which fully funds the program at $900 million annually for 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. State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plans are developed by each state to set priorities for state-side LWCF-funded projects and represent a key opportunity to unlock public lands.
Recognizing the threat posed to wildlife by the increasing density of development within the state, New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection in 2019 launched this innovative program to secure and improve habitat connectivity. By mapping core intact habitats and opportunities to establish corridors between them, the program helps guide strategic land acquisitions to benefit both game and non-game species, as well as sportsmen and women who enjoy new and improved access to public lands.
These two initiatives work hand in hand to conserve natural resources and open space and provide for public access to outdoor recreation. Supported through a real-estate tax, the Environmental Protection Fund provided $300 million toward a wide range of conservation programs in 2020 alone, and a land acquisition portion of the program has been funded at around $30 million annually in recent years. A portion also funds land acquisition priorities in the New York State Open Space Conservation Plan, which was established in 2016 and identifies seven major resource categories to receive attention by the state, including projects that “provide or assist in providing access to public land which has no access or limited access due to geographic barriers.”
Funded through a variety of sources, including the LWCF and the state’s Environmental Stewardship Fund, C2P2 is administered by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to conserve and acquire land through several methods. This includes the acquisition of lands to be added to existing state parks, forests, and game lands, which could be used to tie together disjointed state holdings and establish access to landlocked parcels. The C2P2 can also be used to acquire conservation easements, some of which include permanent public access agreements.
Top photo by Derek Eberly.
Hint: Consult your U.S. History books for the answer
Working with conservation policy sometimes makes clear how much you may have forgotten from grade school, like biomes, basic watershed ecology, government checks and balances, and “I’m just a bill and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill…” And in partnering with onX to identify landlocked public lands across the country, we’ve been reminded of a few U.S. history lessons.
Our country’s unique past has shaped land ownership today—from the creation of a much-celebrated national public lands system to the American Dream of individual home ownership to the boom and bust cycles across various industries. The resulting mosaic of county, state, and federal land holdings in the U.S. has also left a remnant patchwork of isolated public land parcels with untapped opportunity for hunters and anglers.
Westward expansion, homesteading, and the railroads would lead to checkerboarded federal and private lands in states like Wyoming, Montana, and Nevada. In the Upper Midwest, some land conveyances were made to either expand agriculture or retire marginal farmlands, and plenty of private lands went back to state or county and municipal ownership through tax forfeiture.
But in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region, there were different contributing factors.
Given their history as British colonies, the original thirteen U.S. states were not organized according to the gridded system of ranges, townships, and sections later used to parcel out land ownership in new states and territories as the country expanded westward. As such, property boundaries in states like New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were drawn around geographic features and other landmarks through an early survey system known as “Metes and Bounds.”
Nearly all land in these states became private property during the colonial period through charters granted by the British Crown to corporations or individuals, as well as through the sale of Crown lands. It was only much later that these states—faced with depleted soils, diminishing timber stands, and deteriorating water quality—began actively purchasing lands to address conservation, access, and resource management needs.
Though they are dwarfed by the sheer land mass of Western states, some Eastern states have accumulated rather large amounts of public land. In New Jersey, the state owns 21 percent of the land within its borders, the third-most of any state behind Alaska and Hawaii. In New York and Pennsylvania, those figures are similarly significant: 14 percent and 13.9 percent respectively, at fifth and sixth place in the nation.
Managed for varying purposes and according to a diverse set of frameworks, public lands in these three states have a rich tradition. New York established the first state park system in 1881 and created the Adirondack Preserve (later Adirondack Park) in subsequent years. New Jersey similarly has its own large, relatively undeveloped, and sparsely populated natural area in the state’s southern Pine Barrens.
Many of the state lands in the region, particularly in New York and Pennsylvania, were formerly abandoned farmlands or private timberlands on which the owners stopped paying property taxes after the parcels were cut over in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Other lands were acquired by the states to conserve wildlife habitat in the early 20th century. The Pennsylvania Game Commission, for example, manages nearly 1.5 million acres of State Game Lands for this purpose.
Accordingly, the bulk of the 80,000 acres of landlocked public lands we identified in the Mid-Atlantic are managed by the states, counties, and municipalities. Less than 5 percent of all the landlocked acres we found in this region are managed by federal agencies, compared to about 60 percent in the West.
Another important distinction between East and West, because land ownership boundaries in this part of the country are far less likely to align neatly at corners like a checkerboard, is that “corner-crossing” as a contested form of public access is a much less significant debate in the Mid-Atlantic states.
That doesn’t diminish the severity of having 80,000 acres of lost hunting and fishing opportunities across the region. There are solutions, but sportsmen and women must be vocal about the resources and legislative initiatives necessary to unlock our public lands.
Top photo courtesy of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation via flickr.
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