6.35 Million Acres of Western States’ Public Holdings Are Landlocked, Report Says

State land that could be used for hunting, fishing, and other recreation lies inaccessible behind private holdings. A report suggests ways to open it up.

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More than 6 million acres of state-owned lands in the rural West are inaccessible because they are surrounded by private land with no easements, according to a new report.

The study found that nearly 13 percent of state recreational land in 11 Western states was unavailable for public use because it is landlocked.

Montana led the list, with approximately 1.6 million acres of inaccessible state land. New Mexico had about 1.4 million acres, and Arizona 1.3 million.

Other states in the study were the following:

  • Colorado: 435,000 acres
  • Washington: 316,000 acres
  • Utah: 116,000 acres
  • Idaho: 71,000 acres
  • Oregon: 47,000 acres
  • California: 38,000 acres
  • Nevada: less than 1,000 acres

The study, “Inaccessible State Lands in the West,” built on data released last year that identified 9.5 million acres of federal public forest and rangeland that are similarly inaccessible. Both studies were conducted by the nonpartisan conservation organization Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) and onX, a data and outdoor recreation mapping company.

The combined state and federal inaccessible public land in the West covers an area about the size of West Virginia.

(Photo source: “Inaccessible State Lands in the West.” )

Access to public land is one of the critical factors for the growing outdoor recreation economy, according to the study.

“Public land access is the engine that drives an outdoor recreation economy worth more than $887 billion in annual consumer spending,” the report stated. “Nearly three-quarters of Western hunters depend on public lands for some or all of their access.”

Joel Webster, TRCP’s Western lands director, said state lands are a big part of the West’s recreation economy.

“State trust lands, parks and wildlife management areas often provide excellent hunting and fishing, yet 6.35 million acres of them are currently landlocked and inaccessible to the public,” he said.

A message from the Rural Assembly

One of the causes of inaccessibility is how the federal government distributed public land to states.

“Because of the West’s unique history, state trust lands—much like BLM lands—are often scattered among private holdings, undeveloped without parking areas or trailheads, and are seemingly tailormade for these types of recreation opportunities. But in many cases these lands lie untouched by public  roadways or adjacent public lands, and lack easements that would allow travel to them, leaving them ‘landlocked’ and off-limits to the public,” the report stated.

RELATED STORY: Millions of Acres of ‘Public’ Land Are Not Legally Accessible

Nearly all the landlocked acres identified, around 95%, are categorized as state trust lands. These acres were granted to the Western states by the federal government upon statehood and are generally open to public recreation (Colorado is an exception). Trust lands in Western states are generally managed to provide revenue for public services, typically education.

The report also included possible solutions to “unlocking” state lands for public access.

“Handheld GPS technologies have revolutionized how the recreating public finds and uses state and federal lands, making millions of acres of small tracts of public lands easy to discover and explore, both safely and legally” said onX’s Eric Siegfried. “GPS technologies have also helped the recreating public become personally aware that inaccessible public lands are scattered across the Western landscape, and onX is eager to help identify the extent of the landlocked challenge and showcase the collaborative tools to fix it.”

Bikers make their way down the Towpath at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which is supported by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a source of funding often used to purchase access through easements or land acquisition. The towpath follows the route of the Ohio & Erie Canal through the Cuyahoga River valley. (Photo via LWCF Coalition Facebook page)

One source of funding to purchase access through easements or land acquisition is the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). LWCF pays for local parks and recreation areas across America, drawing from the proceeds derived from fossil fuel extraction from public holdings. LWCF is permanently authorized for up to $900 million in spending per year, but Congress is required to appropriate these funds during the annual budget appropriations process. Congress has provided zero funding in some years, and usually appropriates less than half of available LWCF collections to the program.

Under current law, 40% of LWCF program must be directed to individual states. Federal funding is provided as “matching grants to states and local governments for the acquisition and development of public outdoor recreation areas and facilities.” More than 40,000 individual LWCF grants and $4.1 billion have been provided to states and localities for these purposes, according to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

An interactive map documents the more than 50-year history of LWCF projects across the country. Funds have been used to pay for everything from small town parks and baseball diamonds to biking trails and boat launches.

The report also highlights the various ways that states can address inaccessible public lands. Several states have made progress with dedicated staff and programs for improving access, such as establishing State Offices of Outdoor Recreation. Currently, 13 states have created offices of outdoor recreation, task forces, or policy advisors to address recreation-based economic development, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, an industry trade group.

Other state-based solutions include “walk-in” access programs. The study highlights successes such as Idaho’s “Access Yes” Program and New Mexico’s “Open Gate” program. These programs, administered by state fish and wildlife agencies, usually enter into short-term contracts with private landowners who are paid to allow public hunting or fishing.

States can also consolidate their trust land holdings to make them more manageable and profitable, according to the report, through land acquisitions and land exchanges. The state of Wyoming, for instance, exchanged 3,320 acres of noncontiguous, landlocked state trust lands along the eastern front of the Bighorn Mountains for 2,379 accessible acres. The land swap resulted in new access to more than 4,000 acres of state lands to the public.

A message from the Rural Assembly

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