New report details the extent of inaccessible public lands in the South and adds to a growing understanding of a national outdoor recreation access challenge
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and onX announced today that more than 174,000 acres of public land in Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas are entirely landlocked by private land and, therefore, inaccessible to hunters, anglers, and other outdoor recreationists.
“Hunters and anglers are always looking for a new favorite spot, or for a patch of woods or body of water where they can get away from the crowds,” said Joel Webster at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “That’s why landlocked public lands have become such a pressing concern for our community: These lands belong to all of us, yet we cannot get to them without permission. 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.”
Using today’s leading mapping technologies, the collaborative study found that more than 75,000 acres of public land in Florida, 49,000 acres in North Carolina, 28,000 acres in Arkansas, and 22,000 acres in Tennessee are landlocked and inaccessible to the public without private landowner permission. The detailed findings are now available in a new report that also unpacks what’s at stake, some solutions, and how so many acres became landlocked.
“All across the country, public lands provide vital access for hunters and anglers,” said onX access advocacy manager Lisa Nichols. “In recent years, GPS technologies found in your average smartphone have made it easier for outdoor recreationists to discover new opportunities on public lands, and to notice parcels without any legal way to access them. These landlocked acres represent lost opportunities that would otherwise be available to the public.”
The analysis looked at public lands managed by all levels of government—including federal, state, county, and municipal—and who owns the majority of landlocked acres varied for each state. In both North Carolina and Arkansas, the relative amounts of state and federal landlocked acres were roughly equivalent. Most of the landlocked public lands in Tennessee were federally owned, followed narrowly by state lands, while the overwhelming majority of inaccessible public lands in Florida were county or municipal acres.
Ranging in size from just a few acres to hundreds, the landlocked areas identified by the project could potentially offer new outdoor recreation opportunities in the region, boosting an economic sector already worth $778 billion in consumer spending nationally.
The passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, signed into law on August 4, 2020, 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 enhancements. 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.
“It amazes me that so many public acres—from North Carolina’s state-owned game lands to the Pisgah National Forest—remain fragmented and landlocked by private lands,” said Jay Leutze, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy board advisor and a North Carolina resident. “I’m thankful for the solutions available to us through the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and the North Carolina state Land and Water Fund. Together, these two programs enable land trusts and the agencies to work with willing sellers to help consolidate public land ownership, conserve important habitats, and expand public access.”
The onX-TRCP report further highlights several important programs in Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas that help to create new access for public land users.
“The Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council (ANCRC) was established in 1987 to provide grant funding for the acquisition, management and stewardship of state-owned properties including natural areas, historic sites and land devoted to outdoor recreation,” said Stacy Hurst, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism and one of the 11 members of the ANCRC. “Since that time, ANCRC has provided the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission funding that enabled the conservation and protection of over 45,000 acres of land, all of which has public access including many areas available for public hunting.”
“The North Carolina Land and Water Fund (NCLWF) is the single largest funder of game lands in North Carolina with nearly $300 million dollars contributed since the Fund’s inception protecting 230,000 acres of game land,” said Cam Ingram, executive director of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC). “The NCWRC is fortunate to have a great partner in the NCLWF to help us meet our mission of conserving North Carolina’s wildlife resources and providing opportunities for wildlife-associated recreation.”
Earlier this year, onX and TRCP released two other regionally focused reports on landlocked public lands in the Upper Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic, which found that more than 300,000 acres of public land in Minnesota and Wisconsin and more than 80,000 acres of public land in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey are inaccessible. These studies expand on a two-year effort to calculate the total acreage of landlocked public lands in the Pacific and Intermountain West.
To date, the TRCP and onX have identified a total of 16.43 million acres of inaccessible public lands across 22 states.
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 all three of this year’s reports as well as the reports published in 2018 and 2019.
onX has 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: @jordansriley of @capturedcreative