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History has shaped how public lands are now organized and, in some cases, completely isolated by private land
After years of analyzing and identifying landlocked public lands across the country, the TRCP and onX have now tallied up 16.43 million acres of lost hunting and fishing opportunities in 22 states.
This is no doubt frustrating, because they’re your public lands and you can’t get to them. But there’s no single policy or decision-maker to blame. As we’ve seen in the West, the Midwest, and the Mid-Atlantic, public lands have become landlocked in many ways. The diverse history of the Southeast has similarly had significant implications for the way this region’s public lands are organized—and in some cases isolated—today.
States such as North Carolina, which had been among the original 13, and Tennessee, part of which had been a territorial claim of North Carolina until it was ceded to the federal government, used an older survey system known as “metes and bounds” to create property lines following geographic features and other landmarks.
Other states were acquired through treaties with foreign powers, such as the Louisiana Purchase, and so their public lands were organized according to the survey system used across the West and Midwest to divide the federal government’s acquisitions into a grid-like pattern of ranges, townships, and sections. These states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi—are known as the South’s “public land states.”
But over time, as in other parts of the country, many public lands in the South were sold off. Particularly in the areas between the Appalachian Mountains and Mississippi River, where demand for cotton, the region’s primary cash crop, produced a westward land rush. During the first half of the 19th century, large speculative purchases resulted in the massive transfer of public lands into private hands.
Following the Civil War, Congress enacted the Southern Homestead Act to reduce speculation and encourage land ownership among formerly enslaved people, but the law was repealed in 1876 as the Reconstruction Era came to an end. As a result, the remaining federal estate in the South was subject to massive land sales in which timber and mineral interests accumulated huge swaths of forests.
In the early 20th century, however, the region’s public-land legacy was reborn, beginning with the passage of the Weeks Act in 1911. The law empowered the federal government to acquire lands for national forests in the eastern United States. The intention of the law was to restore cut-over and eroded lands, thereby conserving timber resources and important watersheds.
The 1930s saw the establishment of state forests and parks, in part with the help of Civilian Conservation Corps workers, who built facilities and infrastructure. States also began to acquire Wildlife Management Areas to conserve important habitat for game species, as well as to provide hunting and fishing opportunities for the public.
The result of all of this is today’s unique system of county, state, and federal land holdings and, unfortunately, a remnant patchwork of landlocked public lands.
These state and federal programs can help to open landlocked public lands across the region
Through TRCP’s unique partnership with onX, we now know that more than 174,000 acres of public land in Florida, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee 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 Southeast. 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 five 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.
This major conservation and recreational lands acquisition program has been used by the state to open 818,000 acres to the public with $3.1 billion in funding since 2001. The list of crucial habitats and recreation opportunities protected through the Florida Forever program is immense, with funding being spread across 10 different agencies. With a goal of increasing public recreation opportunities, Florida Forever is a powerful tool that can be used to open existing landlocked public lands.
In 1987, Tennessee created the fund to acquire and protect wetlands, primarily on the Mississippi River Alluvial Plain. The program has since been expanded to protect uplands and other habitats across the state, and public access is a priority with all new land acquisitions. Funded at between $12 million and $19 million each year, the Wetland Fund is an effective tool that could be applied to unlock inaccessible public lands that offer important habitats and hunting and fishing opportunities.
This decision-making body was established by the Arkansas Legislature in 1987 to oversee grants and a trust fund for the acquisition, management, and stewardship of state-owned properties. These grants are funded through the state’s real estate transfer tax to protect and maintain natural areas, historic sites, and outdoor recreation access points. Funded at more than $20 million annually in recent years, a portion of ANCRC funds can be used for state land acquisition—including natural areas, state parks, and state forests —and these dollars are frequently leveraged with federal matching grants, including those from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Formerly known as the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, this program was established in 1996 to protect the state’s drinking water sources. Since that time, its purpose has expanded to include other conservation and recreation needs such as boosting public access, and the fund has conserved more than half a million acres and protected or restored 3,000 miles of streams and rivers. The Land and Water Fund is an important tool for opening new recreation opportunities, and $11 million was appropriated for land acquisition in 2020.
To learn more about the landlocked public lands problem and other solutions, visit unlockingpubliclands.org.
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
Bone up on how to bone out your deer before you head for the truck
In this short video, MeatEater‘s Janis Putelis teaches an essential hunting skill, which also helps to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease.
Many states with a CWD risk now require that you properly dispose of parts of the deer carcass that can carry the disease, including the spinal cord, lymph nodes, and spleen. So check your local regs, pack a few extra knives and a bone saw, and bookmark this video.
You won’t be sorry you did. As Steven Rinella says in the brief intro, if you don’t have CWD where you hunt, you don’t want it.
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