posted in: Highlights

April 6, 2023

Why Is Public Land Access Via County and State Roads So Unclear?

Lack of readily available information about unpaved roads means hunters and anglers can’t reach their public lands

Anyone who has spent time driving in rural America trying to reach public land or water to hunt or fish knows just how difficult it can be to determine if an unpaved road is public or private. And while you’d think paper maps and GPS units would simplify this confusion, they often don’t.

Road mapping information has traditionally been focused on road surface type—ie. dirt, gravel, or paved—and not whether a road is legally open or closed to the public. This system is good at helping you decide if, for example, you need a high clearance vehicle, but it doesn’t clarify if you have a right to drive down a two-track toward a parcel of public land.

Opportunities afield are being lost because of unclear information, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership believes that everyone should know if they can legally drive on a road or not. This is just one of the many access challenges we are addressing at the federal, state, and local levels.

To Digitize and Publicize

The root of the confusion around county and state road access is a lack of data. We now enjoy digital tools that have changed the game for finding hunting and fishing access, but they are only as good as the data provided by agencies overseeing public lands and access points.

Solutions are being implemented. The TRCP helped the hunt-fish community achieve a milestone in 2022 with the passage of the MAPLand Act. This legislation directs the federal land management agencies—including the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management—to create digital mapping files of over 90,000 individual access easements that serve to open otherwise difficult to access public lands. The MAPLand Act further orders federal agencies to geospatially map designated roads and trails on 640 million acres of public land, and to specify what kinds of vehicles are allowed on those routes.

While MAPLand will help eliminate confusion surrounding numerous access routes, there are thousands of non-federal public roads and trails, such as country roads and state-held access easements, where public access has been secured but information about the access is difficult to obtain.

Who Can Access County Roads?

To start, county roads are public rights-of-way that have been established by a formal county action. County roads are open to the public and, in rural areas, were often created to serve as local access roads to help people travel from their ranches and farms to town, commonly passing through public lands along the way.

In many places, local governments have been establishing county roads for well over a century, and they never expire. The only way county roads can be legally removed is if they are formally and actively eliminated by the local government in a way that complies with state law.

Some county roads are dusty two-tracks that lead off into the sagebrush toward public hunting and fishing grounds. In many rural counties where budgets are tight, little has been done to clarify the location of county roads, and hunters and anglers have a difficult time telling the difference between a county road and a private lane.

While county road information can generally be obtained by inquiring directly with the county, there should be an easier way. The TRCP is presently investigating possible funding sources to help counties gain the capacity to digitize their county road maps and make that information readily available to the public and mobile app companies.

What About State-Owned Easements?

In addition to county roads, individual states across the nation own millions of acres of trust lands, wildlife management areas, parks, and forests. There are 39 million acres of trust lands in 11 Western states alone. Just like the federal government, states also own easements across private land to make their lands accessible, and access easements may not be physically marked with signage.

Because state access records are held on paper file in government buildings across the nation, the TRCP does not know how many easements are out there, but we know they exist. The TRCP is encouraging state lawmakers in places like Wyoming to dedicate resources toward digitizing these easements and making them publicly known.

Ultimately, the TRCP believes that transparent and readily available information about public access will lower barriers to entry and open new opportunities for outdoor recreation, while also reducing conflict with landowners by making it clear where the public does and does not have legal access.

Sign up to stay informed on this issue and other public access challenges, and watch TRCP’s new film that highlights this topic, Paper Trails.


Photo Credit: Steve Smith

2 Responses to “Why Is Public Land Access Via County and State Roads So Unclear?”

  1. I’d love to know more about this as I am a commercial drone operator and believe I could help in the matter, especially digitizing these roads with relative ease. I would love to understand more and see how I can help. Thank you

  2. One issue with easements is that unless they SPECIFICALLY say the public has rights to use the roads, the private landowners are claiming they are for only administrative access only. It doesn’t matter how long the public “has used” them, a new owner comes in or a timber company decides to charge for the use of a road to public land and BAM, up goes the no trespassing signs and gates. Agency folks do not even bother to actually read the easements and protest. Digitizing does not fix this–it just highlights the next access battleground. Washington state is where to start with these easements. I have found a major legislative push in 1967 that actually changed easement language to include the public. The state did this (unfortunately) by removing a restrictive clause that limited use to land management and administration before 1967. To add public use, they simply removed that restriction, instead of specifically stating that the public could use the roads to access public land. But, there is a legislative paper trail that shows that this broad language was bought and paid for by tax breaks and legislation. Many of these roads now require an expensive timber company permit to use just to get to public land. The state knows all about it, and so far, they have done nothing.

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posted in: Highlights

April 3, 2023

New Legislation Would Help Increase Walk-In Access Program Acres

Lawmakers have introduced the Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act to boost an important Farm Bill program that creates public hunting and fishing opportunities on private land

The Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act of 2023 has been introduced by Senator Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Senator Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) to strengthen one of the most critical Farm Bill programs for America’s sportsmen and sportswomen: the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. It is the only federal initiative that helps to create public hunting and fishing opportunities on private land, and this new legislation calls for tripling the program’s impact.

“Lack of access is the largest barrier to hunter and angler participation, and the USDA’s Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program is the single best federal tool to increase recreational access on private lands,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We applaud Senators Daines, Bennet, and Marshall for their leadership on the Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act and look forward to working with Congress to expand hunting and fishing opportunities for all Americans.”

The legislation would invest $150 million over the next five years in the VPA-HIP, which provides grants to states and Tribes to be implemented at the local level. This increased investment was among the recommendations made by TRCP’s Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group in its “Hunter and Angler Priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill” released earlier this year.

The Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act is supported by more than 30 hunting, fishing, and conservation organizations.

“VPA-HIP is an incredibly important program for hunters, opening nearly one million private acres to public hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation over its lifetime,” says Torin Miller, senior director of policy for the National Deer Association. “Not surprisingly, interest and enrollment in the program is growing. The Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act of 2023 recognizes the growing interest in the program and the importance of maintaining quality hunting access across the country. The bill’s $150-million authorization will ensure expanded and continued enrollment in VPA-HIP, benefiting hunters, landowners, and local communities. The National Deer Association is proud to endorse this legislation.”

“The introduction of the Voluntary Access Improvement Act is very welcome news for duck hunters as VPA-HIP has accomplished significant increases in access for waterfowl hunters,” says John Devney, chief policy officer at Delta Waterfowl. “From the WRICE program in Arkansas to the PLOTS program in North Dakota and WIA and COOP in South Dakota, VPA-HIP is providing important access for hunters across the country. We sincerely appreciate Senators Daines, Bennett and Marshall for advancing this key priority in the 2023 Farm Bill.”

“Since 2008, the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program has opened millions of acres of private lands and waters to America’s anglers,” says Glenn Hughes, president of the American Sportfishing Association. “We thank Senators Daines, Bennet, and Marshall for their support of this program, which will expand sportfishing opportunities for generations to come.”

The VPA-HIP, once commonly known as “open fields,” has a very special place in the hearts of TRCP’s staff and supporters, as it was championed by our inspirational co-founder, Jim Range, before his untimely death. The program was established and funded through the 2008, 2014, and 2018 Farm Bills—most recently at $50 million over five years—with its impacts felt across the country.

Apart from creating more outdoor recreation access, VPA-HIP funding is also utilized to provide technical and financial assistance to landowners for wildlife habitat improvement and enhancement projects. It is often layered with other Farm Bill programs that have habitat benefits, such as Conservation Reserve Program and Wetland Reserve Easements. And the program allows states to address liability, alleviating a roadblock for many landowners to open their lands to the public.

Recent studies have shown that the VPA-HIP has a more than eight-to-one return on investment in the form of outdoor recreation spending in rural communities.

Click here to watch a video about some of the many benefits of the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program.


Photo by USDA


posted in: Highlights

March 22, 2023

It’s Time to Build on Recent Commitments to Addressing Drought in the Colorado River Basin

Once-in-a-generation investments have just been made, but it’s only a down payment on the long-term effort needed to ensure the future of hunting and fishing in this critically important watershed

The Colorado River has the well-deserved nickname of the hardest working river in America. The river’s usage is as diverse as the people and species it serves.

Thirty different Tribes and a third of the U.S. Latino population depend on the Colorado River, which flows through two countries and provides drinking water to 40 million people across seven states. Its waters provide us with power for our homes and businesses, irrigate crops that are sent all over the country, and support critical fish and wildlife habitat that power our hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation opportunities.

Currently, the Colorado River Basin is in a 23-year drought—the worst dry period in 1,200 years. With above average snowfall so far this year in portions of the basin, some have indicated that the drought is over. The truth is that we need several years of above average snow across the basin to make a substantial dent in the drought.

The news is not all bleak for the Colorado River. Recently, $4 billion in federal funds were made available to address drought impacts and support habitat restoration in the West, with the vast majority of these funds going to address the Colorado River crisis. The Bureau of Reclamation and seven states, with input from Tribes and other critical stakeholders, are also in the process of developing new strategies to manage the Colorado River system in ways that address the concerns of agricultural producers, sustain drinking water supplies, and benefit the environment.

We commend the Biden-Harris Administration for its leadership and the substantial investments it has made to tackle drought in the West, and specifically the Colorado River Basin. In February of this year, for example, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that $728 million would be spent to address Western drought and improve climate resilience.

This new funding, made possible by legislation passed in the last two years, supplements unprecedented investments to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River System now and into the future. Additionally, the Department of Interior recently announced an additional $120 million to rebuild and restore units of the National wildlife Refuge system and partnering State wildlife Management Areas.

But there is more to be done. These federal investments are only a down payment on the longer-term need to address the challenges facing the Colorado River Basin. Sustained, durable investments in a broad range of adaptation strategies will be necessary.

The challenges in the Colorado River Basin serve as a reminder that we need to live as part of nature and not separate from it. If you agree, help us advocate for additional long-term solutions that will ensure the future of hunting and fishing in the Colorado River Basin. Tell Congress and Interior Secretary Haaland to build on recent commitments to conservation in the Colorado River Basin.


Learn more about what is at stake for the Colorado River here.


posted in: Highlights

March 16, 2023

Video: Where Private Land Creates Public Hunting Opportunities

If you use state walk-in access programs to hunt or fish on private land, you’ve already benefited from a key Farm Bill program

Join TRCP’s Aaron Field and Ian Nakayama as they hunt private farm lands in Minnesota thanks to the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. This one-of-a-kind access program complements the full suite of habitat improvement programs that invest federal Farm Bill dollars at the local level. In the case of the VPA-HIP, there is a nine-to-one return on this investment in the form of outdoor recreation spending in rural communities.

In the video, Greg Hoch with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Craig Lingen with the Wilkin Soil and Water Conservation District share information about the importance and success of the VPA-HIP program in their state.

You can support strengthening this important public access program in the next Farm Bill right now.


posted in: Highlights

March 7, 2023

Why We Care About BLM’s Plan to Expand Solar Development on Public Lands

What hunters and anglers need to know about implications of expanding utility-scale solar on public lands

The TRCP has long worked to defend a balance of the many demands on our public lands, which sustain so many of our hunting and fishing opportunities in the U.S. The push for increased renewable energy production on public lands is creating new challenges that we are doing our best to address with public land managers.

There is an undeniable need to transition as quickly as possible to low-carbon sources of energy to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. I was encouraged by the Bureau of Land Management’s recent announcement detailing its intentions to revise and potentially expand its 2012 Western Solar Plan to all 11 Western states. Expanding the geographic scope of this planning document and updating it to incorporate the best available science, like new data on recently mapped big game migration corridors, is the most responsible way to expeditiously meet the administration’s goal of deploying 25 GW of renewable energy development on public lands by 2025, while minimizing adverse impacts to wildlife and other public land resources.

There are, however, trade-offs that the BLM must consider when updating its Western Solar Plan. After touring several utility-scale solar facilities myself, I hesitate to enthusiastically endorse the widespread deployment of this type of development on our public lands. My unease comes from the fact that unlike other forms of energy development—such as wind, or even oil and gas—utility-scale solar generating facilities are usually high-fenced and allow for no other uses of the land within their boundaries. This exclusive use of the land can span thousands of acres for a single solar facility and will cover hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands to meet the administration’s goals. The magnitude of habitat removal and loss of public access from the BLM’s proposed expansion of utility-scale solar development on public lands is unprecedented.

Even with the most careful planning, the expansive size of utility-scale solar developments may have unintended consequences for habitat connectivity and migratory wildlife like big game. A poorly sited solar development in Wyoming that blocked a migration route and forced more than 1,000 pronghorn into a nearby highway right-of-way is a recent reminder of the potential for unintended consequences from solar development. The bitter irony is that these same species that migrate to access critical resources for survival will need large, connected landscapes more than ever to adapt to a changing climate.

I am reminded of a recent quote from Dan Ashe, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who said that addressing climate change will not, by itself, reverse the trend of increasingly widespread habitat fragmentation and the loss of wildlands and wildlife. “The lie is that if we address the climate crisis, we will also solve the biodiversity crisis,” said Ashe.

There are also implications for public access to public lands. A friend of mine recently showed up at his favorite spot to hunt pronghorn and found it fenced and covered with solar panels. Similarly, I was devastated to find out that my best dove hunting location has been approved for utility-scale solar development. I’m left wondering if the biological and social costs of developing large solar facilities on intact, otherwise undisturbed public lands might outweigh the incremental benefits they will provide in our fight to save the climate.

Public Opposition

I was somewhat relieved to find out that I am not alone in thinking that utility-scale solar development might not be the highest and best use of our precious public lands. The public comments during the BLM’s scoping meetings on its Western Solar Plan revision were almost universally opposed to expanding utility-scale solar development on public lands.

These comments come in the context of explosive year-over-year increases in recreational demand on our public lands, and an article in High Country News revealing that if solar panels were put on top of big box stores in the 11 Western states targeted by the BLM, they would generate more than 31 million megawatt-hours of electricity—vastly exceeding the administration’s goals. While there are significant logistical and regulatory constraints to increasing distributed solar generation on big box stores and other existing developments, the public is asking why we aren’t tackling these problems head-on before we further compromise our public lands with additional utility-scale solar development.

Final Thoughts and How to Get Involved

The TRCP and our partners came together during the BLM’s public scoping comment period to provide detailed recommendations on how to minimize the impacts of utility-scale solar development on public lands while increasing generating capacity. Specifically, we urged officials to focus development on previously disturbed lands and exclude areas with high habitat or recreational value. You can still join us by commenting when the BLM releases a draft programmatic environmental impact statement—likely late this summer or early next fall. Look for future communications here at trcp.org and on our social media for how to get involved when the draft is released.



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.

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