Inaccessible public lands topic of recent report
November 2, 2018
Private lands that "land lock" public lands are at the center of a report released by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Fund and hunting GPS technology company onX, titled "Off Limits, But Within Reach: Unlocking the West's Inaccessible Public Lands."
The report seeks to promote access to some of the 9.52 million acres of public lands currently inaccessible without an easement across privately held land. Sporting access, the report reads, was once more readily acquired but as land ownership patterns have shifted, sportsmen and women are more frequently encountering no trespassing signs, major barriers to hunting and fishing.
The report cites data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding the 72 percent of Western hunters who depend upon public lands for some or all of their access. As companies like onX have provided GPS technology to locate quality hunting and fishing locales, the report suggests access has become more vital to outdoor enjoyment. This same technology alternately provides users with a pinpoint location in relation to property boundaries to all but eliminate the potential for trespass on private land, even without signage or fenced boundaries.
The partnership utilized onX's technology to analyze "where locked gates prevent Americans from hunting and fishing on public land and just how much of that land is inaccessible to the citizens who own it." The analysis breaks down acres with no permanent, legal access by state, most of the acres left inaccessible to hunters and anglers are controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. Wyoming has the lion's share of "locked" acres with 3.05 million, followed by Nevada, 2.05 million; Montana, 1.52 million; New Mexico, 554,000; California, 492,000; Oregon, 443,000; Colorado, 269,000; Utah, 443,000; Arizona, 243,000; Idaho, 208,000; South Dakota, 196,000; Washington, 121,000; and North Dakota, 107,000.
The key to unlocking the gates to the private lands for access to public use, the report said, is funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The report alleges that lawmakers have little sway over forces affecting hunting and fishing in the United States but can control the fund.
"If elected officials are serious about improving public land access for hunting and fishing, they need to pass a permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund with full, dedicated annual funding," authors wrote.
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In past years, LWCF funding has purchased privately held acres to allow for public access to landlocked and difficult to access acres.
In an editorial that originally appeared in the Billings Gazette by Western Landowners Alliance's Member and Advancement Officer, Cole Mannix, Helena, Mont., said the issue of allowing access to public lands across private lands is nothing short of contentious but is based on mutual interests. While some appreciate the land for its recreational opportunities, Mannix said, others see the land as a "place to work and carry on the ranching traditions that thankfully have preserved much of our open space and wildlife habitat." The ranching operations that strived to be economically sustainable, he wrote, have helped keep the landscape in tact for all users.
While the public lands seem to stay at the center of the debate, Mannix said the significance of the private working lands to the conservation of habitat and water resources as well as the production of food, ought not be overlooked.
"Functional and intact private ranchland is critical to the well-being of rural communities, agricultural productivity and bio-diversity, from native vegetation to our most iconic species," he wrote. "Considering the rapid loss and conversion of agricultural lands and their synergistic association to our public lands, perhaps we should be dedicating as much energy to the challenges of maintaining their viability as we are to the issues surrounding access through them."
Cheyenne, Wyo., attorney Frank Falen said the purchase of private lands that checkerboard public lands can be positive for landowners if the case is one of willing buyer, willing seller. With the checkerboard of landownership referenced in the report, Falen said a tremendous number of private acres would have to be purchased to allow access, or a large number of road access agreements. Many private landowners already come to agreements with hunters and anglers to allow access across their land with little issue. Falen said local entities are oftentimes affected by the federal purchase of private lands and that land being then removed from tax rolls.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund was established in 1964 and is funded not by taxpayer dollars but by royalties from oil and gas drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf. The funds are intended to protect national parks, areas around rivers and lakes, national forests, and national wildlife refuges from development, and to provide matching grants for state and local parks and recreation projects. According to the LWCF Coalition, $214 million of fund dollars were used to purchase private lands in 2010.
According to an article in Forbes, the LWCF was created to "assist in preserving, developing, and assuring accessibility" to a quality and quantity of outdoor resources for recreational and conservation purposes. The article said property is purchased from landowners at fair market value, and typically garners bipartisan support. However, opponents to the fund's reauthorization cite maintenance backlogs on federally owned lands purchased through the fund, calling the backlog proof that the fund ought not be reauthorized, "if at a minimum, to prevent further acquisitions that cannot be maintained."
According to Nicolas Loris and Katie Tubb, Heritage Foundation, the LWCF should not be funded as permanent reauthorization is tantamount to an "admission that the federal government should be able to acquire more lands in perpetuity." The Heritage Foundation cites the same issue as Forbes, the government's inability to maintain its 640 million acres. Many opponents call for the transfer of public lands from the federal government to the individual states.
"If you put those lands in state control, that could be a plus in some states," Falen said. "In some states, like Nevada, that probably if you're in agriculture, it might be quite a bit different because that state has changed a lot."
A change of jurisdiction in states like Colorado could significantly affect agricultural producers.
"There are certainly issues when you're neighbors with the BLM where it's not always fun," he said. "A switch when you don't know what the switch is comes with a risk."
Falen, who specializes in private land ownership, said few issues related to the Water and Land Conservation Fund have crossed his desk in recent years.
The hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation economy is valued at $887 billion, according to the onX report.