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With today’s signing of the Great American Outdoors Act fully funding nation’s most important access program, new report details the extent of inaccessible public lands in the Upper Midwest
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and onX announced today that more than 303,000 acres of public land in Minnesota and Wisconsin are entirely landlocked by private land and, therefore, inaccessible to hunters, anglers, and other outdoor recreationists.
The new report is an expansion of a two-year effort to analyze the amount of landlocked public lands in the Pacific and Intermountain West, which to date has shown that nearly 16 million federal and state acres have no permanent legal access because they are isolated by private lands.
The report’s publication is timely in the wake of one of the biggest conservation wins in recent memory. Just today, President Trump signed into law the Great American Outdoors Act, securing full funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the federal program best suited to improving and expanding outdoor access to public lands across the country.
Using today’s leading mapping technologies, the collaborative study found that more than 248,000 acres of public lands in Minnesota and more than 55,000 acres in Wisconsin are landlocked and inaccessible to the public without private landowner permission. The detailed findings are now available in a new report, “The Upper Midwest’s Landlocked Public Lands: Untapped Hunting and Fishing Opportunities in Minnesota and Wisconsin,” which also unpacks the stakes of the problem and its historical roots.
“Through our ongoing collaboration with onX, we have been able to identify parcels of land that belong to taxpayers, yet they are unable to take advantage of the vast outdoor opportunities on these lands,” said Joel Webster, Senior Director of Western Programs at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “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.”
“We know how important public land access opportunities are to hunters and anglers all across the country,” said onX access advocacy manager Lisa Nichols. “Especially in places where the majority of the landscape is privately owned, GPS technologies have enabled outdoor recreationists not only to find new opportunities on public lands, but also to notice landlocked parcels that could offer more of these opportunities if there was a legal way to access them.”
While the analysis looked at public lands managed by different levels of government—including federal, state, county, and municipal—the majority of landlocked acres in both Minnesota and Wisconsin were state lands, followed by combined county/municipal acres. Ranging in size from just a few acres to nearly 4,000 acres, the landlocked acres identified by the project could potentially offer outdoor recreationists in the region new opportunities to get outdoors both in urban and rural areas.
“When it comes to landlocked public lands, even small access projects can make a big difference,” adds Nichols. “Finding collaborative solutions to open some of these lands could offer new opportunities to residents of nearby communities where access to public lands and waters might currently be limited.”
Improved public access is also a driver of the $778 billion outdoor recreation economy. Leading brands in the hunting and fishing industry have long recognized the importance of public lands to their customers and their businesses.
“As a family owned, American sports optics company that is based in Wisconsin, we personally understand the value that public lands provide to our customers and employees for outdoor recreation,” said Paul Neess, conservation/education support specialist with Vortex Optics of Barneveld, Wisconsin. “Landlocked public lands in our state and any other state represent missed days and lost opportunities afield for sportsmen and women, and we support all cooperative efforts to open these lands to the public as they were intended to be.”
With the recent passage of the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act, the Land and Water Conservation Fund will now provide a guaranteed $27 million in annual federal funding for public access work. Additionally, at least 40 percent of the program’s overall $900 million budget must be used for state-driven projects.
The onX-TRCP report further highlights several important programs in Minnesota and Wisconsin that help to create new access for public land users.
Wisconsin’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program funds efforts to conserve habitat and water quality, and also prioritizes expanding opportunities for outdoor recreation. Significantly, the program is set to expire in 2022 unless state lawmakers act to renew the program. Given the program’s 2019 budget of $33 million, its expiration could result in lost or reduced opportunities to expand access in Wisconsin.
Established in 2008, Minnesota’s Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund supports projects that protect, enhance, or restore prairies, wetlands, forests, or other habitat, and—when it meets those primary goals—can also be used to open or expand access to inaccessible wildlife management areas managed by Minnesota DNR’s Fish and Wildlife Division.
“Pheasants Forever is actively working to unlock access to public lands across western Minnesota and in other areas of the Midwest, which translates to increased and improved hunting opportunities,” said Eran Sandquist, Minnesota state coordinator with Pheasants Forever. “We work with partners like Minnesota’s Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council to not only conserve wildlife habitat, but also to expand public access, so more sportsmen and women can enjoy quality days afield.”
Additionally, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Strategic Land Asset Management program ensures that the state’s public land holdings reflect its conservation, recreation, and economic values and needs. In an ongoing evaluation process, proposed land acquisitions are measured according to the program’s priorities, including increasing access to public lands.
“In Minnesota, we are very proud of our Strategic Land Asset Management (SLAM) Program and the SLAM framework we have built to ensure public access is evaluated and prioritized on an on-going basis,” said Trina Zieman, the Minnesota DNR’s land asset and school trust administrator. “We appreciate the work done by this collaborative to bring awareness to this issue and identify options that will continue to unlock our public lands for generations of recreationalists.”
Given the level of interest from the public, support from the outdoor industry, and the commitment of state and federal agencies, conservation groups like the TRCP anticipate a bright future for improved and expanded public land access.
“Both states featured in this project have innovative programs for conserving habitat and improving access for hunting and fishing,” said TRCP’s Webster. “It’s our hope that this report highlights the importance of this work to decision makers and the public, especially given the positive effects that it has for families, communities, businesses, and the future of outdoor recreation”
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 the report as well as the previous reports published by onX and TRCP in 2018 and 2019.
Earlier this year, onX also launched a new crowd-sourcing initiative, Report a Land Access Opportunity, with the help of partners including 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.
Top photo: The Hunting Public
TRCP’s CEO attends White House signing ceremony
President Donald Trump today signed bipartisan legislation that invests in America’s public lands, waters, and outdoor economy.
Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, was among the conservation leaders who were invited to attend the historic signing of the Great American Outdoors Act.
“Hunters and anglers across the nation have a reason to celebrate today,” said Fosburgh. “The Great American Outdoors Act is the product of years of hard work by all segments of the outdoor community, from hunters and anglers to hikers and kayakers. To all the lawmakers who carried the water on Capitol Hill, we say thank you, and we thank President Trump for signing the bill into law. Today is proof that conservation stands above partisanship and political rancor.”
The Great American Outdoors Act fully funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million annually, and invests $9.5 billion over the next five years to address the maintenance backlog on federal public lands.
Just like in the West, the history of how lands changed hands has contributed to today’s public access challenges
In the media and in popular imagination, public lands are most closely associated with Western snowcapped peaks managed by the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service or vast expanses of sagebrush prairie managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
But places like the Superior National Forest in Minnesota offer as much of a chance to immerse oneself in adventure as any of the public lands in the West. And for Midwestern hunters and anglers, there are millions of acres of state, county, and locally managed lands that provide critical access close to home.
There are also as many as 300,000 acres of public lands in Minnesota and Wisconsin that are completely surrounded by private land, according to our latest report in partnership with onX. These lands represent lost hunting and fishing opportunities and a national challenge that is unfortunately becoming all too familiar—they’re your public lands, but you can’t get to them without asking someone’s permission.
As with other states in the West and Midwest, upon statehood the land base in Minnesota and Wisconsin was organized into six-by-six-mile squares known as townships according to the Public Land Survey System. Each township was further divided into 36 individual one-mile-square (640-acre) sections.
Both states received land grants from the federal government, originally comprised of two sections within each township, which were to be used to support public schools. Following statehood, several subsequent conveyances of federal land were provided to Minnesota and Wisconsin to serve various purposes, such as to support additional state institutions, create state parks and forests, expand agriculture, and retire marginal or unproductive farmland during the Great Depression. Meanwhile, millions of acres reverted back to counties and the states due in part to tax forfeiture.
Later, the Department of Natural Resources in each state began actively purchasing lands to meet management needs, generate revenue, protect critical fish and wildlife habitats, and provide access for sportsmen and women.
There were also vast federal public lands set aside in the Northwoods in the early 20th century, including the Chippewa and Superior National Forests in Minnesota and the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin.
The result today is some of the most diverse public land holdings found anywhere in the nation and, unfortunately, a remnant patchwork of landlocked public lands.
Click here to read about three programs that offer solutions to the landlocked problem in the Midwest.
Top photo by Joe D via flickr.
These programs could serve as a model for other states with a growing tally of landlocked hunting and fishing areas
These days, thanks to GPS technology, anyone with a smartphone can take advantage of the hunting and fishing opportunities offered by even the smallest parcel of public lands. But what if you stumble across something like this, where there doesn’t seem to be any legal access to reach it?
You might think it’s a mistake, but there are actually more than 300,000 acres of these landlocked public lands in Minnesota and Wisconsin alone. Across the West, there are nearly 16 million landlocked acres.
Sure, you could knock on a few doors and request permission to cross private land into those crosshatched areas. But if access to public lands like these remains exclusive or temporary, we’re tying one hand behind our backs when it comes to recruiting and retaining the participation of new hunters and anglers.
For a Midwestern hunter looking to hang a treestand for whitetails, set up an ambush for turkeys, or work a woodlot for grouse—especially for the first time—a small or overlooked public parcel could be a game-changer. And easy access to a lake shore or riverbank might give a parent the only place they’re be able to teach their kids to fish for walleye, pike, or smallmouth bass.
Strategically unlocking as little as a few dozen inaccessible acres at a time could mean the difference between a young person having a place to hunt or not. A lifelong passion for fishing—and the conservation funding raised by those license purchases—could hang in the balance.
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 facilitated by land trusts, conservation organizations, and public agencies without funding.
When thinking about opening inaccessible public lands, even small projects can offer big benefits. Here are three programs that support these efforts.
The federal 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, a bill that fully funds the program at $900 million annually in support of 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, making it available to help open state- and county-owned lands for public recreation.
Established by the voters of Minnesota in 2008, the Outdoor Heritage Fund is supported through the state sales tax. This program empowers projects that protect, enhance, or restore prairies, wetlands, forests, or other habitat, and—when it meets those primary goals—can also be used to open or expand access to inaccessible wildlife management areas managed by Minnesota DNR’s Fish and Wildlife Division. With an estimated $100 million available in 2022, the Outdoor Heritage Fund is a heavy hitter in support of conservation and access.
Created in 1989, this program exists to preserve valuable natural areas and wildlife habitat, protect water quality and fisheries, and expand opportunities for outdoor recreation. With a budget of $33 million in 2019, Knowles Nelson is a major program that, among other things, can help unlock Wisconsin’s state parks, wildlife and fisheries areas and state natural areas. Knowles Nelson is set to expire in 2022 and will need to be renewed by the state legislature. State decision makers need to know the importance of this program for wildlife habitat and public access.
Both Minnesota and Wisconsin have innovative state programs for conserving habitat and improving access that should serve as valuable models for other states looking to do the same. Support local ballot initiatives and state legislation to set aside these dedicated funds where you live.
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