Millions of Acres of ‘Public’ Land Are Not Legally Accessible

Private holdings block public access to nearly 10 million acres of federal land in the West, hampering growth in the recreation economy, a new report says. The federal program that could help purchase access expires September 30.

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Nearly 10 million acres of federal land in the rural West lie locked behind private holdings that prevent the public from using the property for recreational activities like hiking or hunting, a new report says.  

The inaccessibility of this federal property is slowing down rural economies that depend on income from the outdoor recreation industry, said a representative of the organization that commissioned the report. 

“At 9.52 million acres, the massive scale of the landlocked problem represents a major impediment to public access and the growth of the $887-billion outdoor recreation economy,” said Joel Webster, Western lands director with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership 

The study, “Off Limits But Within Reach: Unlocking the West’s Inaccessible Public Lands,” was conducted by the Conservation Partnership and a private mapping company.

“These are lands that all Americans own, and yet public access is not readily available or guaranteed,” Webster said.  

The problem is that these federal lands are surrounded by private property and have no public easement that allows hunters, anglers, cyclists or other users to gain access to the public land. 

“Across the West, 9.52 million acres of public lands sit entirely landlocked and can be accessed only with the permission of the neighboring private landowners,” said the report. The public lands data was analyzed by OnX, a recreation mapping and data technology company. The study is a first of its kind, the authors say.   

“In some cases, isolated parcels of land are wholly enclosed or ‘landlocked’ by private-land holdings, through which no legal public road or trail passes,” the report says. “In other instances, a checkerboard of land ownership results in public and private parcels meeting corner to corner, and, by most interpretations, state trespass law prevents ‘corner-crossing’ from one piece of public land to another.” 

Checkboard Landlocked: This section of national forest land—nearly 4,000 acres of which is inaccessible—stretches along the East Humboldt Mountains in northeast Nevada. The corner-to-corner alignment of parcels along the western slope prevents access from public land, the report says. (Photo: The Roosevelt Conservation Partnership)
Isolated Landlocked: The BLM lands shown here fall along the
Wyoming-Montana border, in the Powder River Basin northeast of Gillette. Totaling more than 6,000 acres, the two largest, centermost parcels are surrounded on all sides by privately owned ranches. (Photo: Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership)

Nearly a third of the landlocked properties are in Wyoming. Twelve other states are part of the study. The reports say those states have the following amount of inaccessible federal land: 

  • Wyoming: 3,046,000 acres 
  • Nevada: 2,054,000 acres 
  • Montana: 1,523,000 acres 
  • New Mexico: 554,000 acres 
  • California: 492,000 acres 
  • Oregon: 443,000 acres 
  • Colorado: 269,000 acres 
  • Utah: 264,000 acres 
  • Arizona: 243,000 acres 
  • Idaho: 208,000 acres 
  • South Dakota: 196,000 acres 
  • Washington: 121,000 acres 
  • North Dakota: 107,000 acres 

More than 90 percent of the landlocked public land acreage is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.  

One program that could help unlock the restricted public land, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), is on the chopping block in Washington, D.C. The LWCF has provided grants to pay for local parks and recreation areas in nearly every county in the nation. The program is set to expire at the end of September, and there is no pending legislation that would reauthorize it. 

Funding for the competitive grants program is provided by a fee established in 1964 collected on offshore oil and gas drilling. LWCF funding has paid for land purchases, easements or rights-of-way that open otherwise landlocked tracts for public access. Without Congressional action, LWCF will expire September 30.  

“Our report offers a clear and accurate picture of a major access obstacle facing public land users, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund is the single most important mechanism for addressing this challenge,” said Webster with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Many lawmakers talk about their commitment to public access, and the clearest way for them to demonstrate their support would be to reauthorize this critical program by September 30.”  

OnX founder Eric Siegfried said that conservation fund is critical for addressing public land access issues. “Many public land parcels without guaranteed public access range from five to 30 square miles in size—we aren’t just talking about postage stamp sections,” he said. “Understanding this, lawmakers have a very real opportunity to make a positive difference by expanding public access for the American people, and we hope they do.”  

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.  

Recreation is a significant part of the rural economy in many counties. According to a Stateline analysis of Census data, the trend for outdoor recreation in rural communities is part of what drove the overall slight growth of the rural population in the United States from 2016 to 2017. This growth reversed population declines since 2010. While counties with large mining and farming industries shrank, counties with large recreation industries grew the most, by about 42,000, to about 6.3 million.   

Growth in the rural recreation economy has also been tracked closely by Headwaters Economics, an independent research group. Headwaters researchers have found that population, employment and personal income on average all grew significantly faster—two times faster or more—in Western rural counties with the highest share of federal lands compared to counties with the lowest share of federal lands. Per capita income growth was also slightly higher in counties with more federal land.   

 

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