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.
Photo Credit: Steve Smith
Report Highlights Aquatic Invasive Species Solutions
Recommendations focus on modernizing marine fisheries laws, making strategic investments, and improving collaboration among federal, state, local, and tribal agencies
The Aquatic Invasive Species Commission, which includes the TRCP and key partners, has released a new report titled, “Improving the Prevention, Eradication, Control and Mitigation of Aquatic Invasive Species.” In the report, the commission calls on Congress to modernize laws, increase spending, and improve coordination at federal, state, local, and tribal levels to combat harmful aquatic invasive species.
Founded in 2022 by scientists, conservationists, anglers, boaters, business leaders, and policy experts, the AIS Commission has worked to assess existing mitigation efforts and identify more effective eradication solutions for invasive species in our nation’s waters, culminating in this detailed report.
“Aquatic invasive species are a tremendous threat to our nation’s waters, causing billions of dollars in economic harm and unquantifiable—often irreversible—damage to ecosystems,” said Dr. Marc Gaden, communications director at the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and associate professor at Michigan State University. “I commend the outdoor industry for taking the threat of aquatic invasive species seriously and for presenting a roadmap for effective policy. I am particularly pleased to see that many of the recommendations focus on the importance of leveraging science to affect policy. I urge Congress to act on these recommendations so that our nation can take immediate action on invasive species prevention and control.”
Many stakeholders consulted by the commission urged Congress to direct agencies to identify regulatory gaps and weak links across all levels of government. Information sharing and the development of data-driven solutions would enable the Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force, an intergovernmental organization, to spread costs and eradicate invasive species in an increasingly interconnected natural environment, the report states.
Empowering this task force with autonomy, staff, and resources was another focus of the report. AIS eradication efforts can cost up to $100 billion per year, and these changes would reduce the burden on individual agencies.
The report also says that laws should maintain access for boaters and anglers, balancing safe usage with the long-term health of natural resources.
“Access to healthy waters, safe usage, and the long-term health of our natural resources is always on the minds of anglers and boaters while on the water,” said Bassmaster Elite Series pro Mark Menendez. “Ensuring the long-term health of our waterways is crucial in lessening the economic burden that aquatic invasive species unfortunately present to communities impacted by these harmful species. Control, eradication, and beneficial burgeoning industries will play a key part in collaborating to reduce many harmful species from our aquatic systems.”
The American public has a role to play in this effort, as well. The report calls on natural resource managers to maintain and strengthen public engagement over AIS issues. Coordinated, science-based education on AIS prevention is key to effectively stopping the spread of AIS in our waters. The commission recommends securing additional funding for the appropriate agencies to expand signage and work to address language barriers at boat launches and fishing access points to promote angler-led AIS prevention activities, including “Clean, Drain, Dry” decontamination actions.
The TRCP played a key role in a similar process to engage marine fisheries stakeholders in planning for the future. The organization convened and helped to lead the Morris-Deal Commission—name for its two industry champions, Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops and Scott Deal of Maverick Boats—whose 2014 report laid the groundwork for many of the solutions secured by the Modern Fish Act in 2018.
We’re excited to advocate for the many recommendations in this latest report that will help improve recreational fishing in America.
Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
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.
Photo by USDA
TRCP Welcomes Restoration and Habitat Focus in Proposed BLM Rule
Group encourages public engagement to ensure a successful outcome
Today, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership responded to the Bureau of Land Management’s announcement of a proposed Conservation and Landscape Health Rule. The rule intends to clarify and support the agency’s multiple use and sustained yield authority provided through the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, with a focus on restoration, protection, and balanced development.
“The TRCP supports the restoration and conservation of fish and wildlife habitat on BLM lands as part of the agency’s multiple use and sustained yield mission, and we appreciate the opportunity to engage in this process,” said Joel Webster, VP of western conservation at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “BLM public lands and habitat are under increased pressure from drought, severe wildfires, and invasive species, and the Conservation and Landscape Health Rule has the potential to improve the BLM’s ability to address those challenges.”
The BLM manages more than 245 million acres, primarily in the American West, and the agency is tasked with balancing a multitude of uses, including conservation, recreation, and resource development. The proposed rule is open for a 75-day public comment period.
“We plan to roll up our sleeves to ensure that the BLM’s Conservation and Landscape Health Rule improves management of our public lands to benefit sportsmen and sportswomen,” continued Webster. “TRCP encourages the BLM to engage with a range of stakeholder groups when refining the rule to make sure it is workable, durable, and successfully implemented.”
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