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?”
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
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.