Conservationists seek to ‘unlock’ 16 million acres of inaccessible public lands

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More than 6 million acres of state-owned land in the West are landlocked, a new report finds. In total, 16 million acres of state and federal public lands in the West are inaccessible

More than one in 10 acres of Western state-owned land is inaccessible for recreationists and conservationists due to a patchwork of private parcels that lock up any entry points, according to a new study released Monday.

The report by the digital-mapping company onX and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) says more than 6 million out of the 49 million acres of state-owned public lands in 11 Western states are landlocked because they’re surrounded by privately held lands where visitors would be trespassers.

The pattern concerns hunters and recreationists alike, who both are denied access to choice outdoor opportunities on land that already belongs to taxpayers.

“What can states do about it? What we found is some states have done quite a bit and some have done very little,” said Joel Webster, director of the TRCP Center for Western Lands.

The authors of the report, Inaccessible State Lands in the West: The Extent of the Landlocked Problem and the Tools to Fix It, say the problem’s source dates back to the 19th century and the extension of statehood to Western territories, when Congress would make public land grants to the states that could be sold off or developed for generating revenues for new public institutions. About 95 percent of the inaccessible state lands cited in the report are part of such state land trusts.

Over time, states sold off and made use of their land trusts in different ways: Nevada sold off nearly all of its parcels with only 3,000 acres remaining by 2006, while Arizona sold off very few —it currently manages more than 9.2 million acres of state trust lands.

“The result was a scattered arbitrary pattern of trust lands that frequently led to sections of state land surrounded entirely by private holdings,” the study says.

State trust lands across the West have been consolidated by exchanges, sales and acquisitions over time, but the quilt of public and private ownership across the 11-state region can still be seen across its 38.8 million acres of trust lands.

In the present day, states most often choose to lease these lands to private interests for grazing, mineral development and timber production.

Colorado stands apart from other states in that, in addition to the 435,000 state-owned acres landlocked by private ownership, it leases most of its 2.8 million acres of state trust lands for agriculture and mining, according to the state’s Land Board. That prohibits any recreation activities, including hunting and fishing, for those who aren’t party to the lease, according to the outdoorsman nonprofit Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

“Colorado has perhaps the single greatest opportunity right now in the West to expand public access to outdoor recreation, and doing so could help fulfill its trust obligations,” the study says.

About 20 percent of Colorado’s state trust lands are open to hunters and anglers from September through February through leases and easements arranged by the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife, according to The Denver Post.

The new report comes one year after onX and TRCP compiled similar data on federally owned public lands in the West, finding 9.52 million acres also locked in by private land holdings with no legal public access readily available. That’s more than all of New Hampshire and Connecticut combined.

In total, 16.05 million acres of state and federal public lands in the West are inaccessible. The states with the most landlocked state and federal acreage include Wyoming (4.16 million), Montana (3 million), Nevada (2 million), New Mexico (1.9 million) and Arizona (1.5 million), according to combined data from both reports.

The study’s authors say the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which funds states’ efforts to improve access to public lands, is currently the best option for addressing the problem. The fund, created by Congress in 1964 and funded through royalties on offshore oil and gas production, has opened more than 5 million acres to access for hunters, anglers and other recreationists, according to TRCP.

Congress permanently authorized the fund earlier this year as part of a landmark bipartisan public lands package, but negotiations over  permanent full funding are ongoing. Congress is authorized to allocate up to $900 million in the LWCF annually. But throughout the fund’s lifespan, Congress has diverted, on average, between one-half and two-thirds of funding, LWCF Coalition Manager Amy Lindholm previously told the Co-op Journal.

Since its creation five decades ago, the fund has put $3.9 billion into state grants for the acquisition and development of recreation lands, according to the Department of the Interior. The fund has spent $16.7 billion on the acquisition of federal lands that are subsequently granted to states for recreation purposes.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership says these funds can be directed into opening access to public lands right now. State agencies can take advantage of it by factoring access to landlocked public lands in their Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, which each state is required to develop and revise every five years to be eligible for federal funding.

Beyond the LWCF, some states are dedicating their own resources to address the problem. In 2017, Montana lawmakers created the Public Lands Access Network, which makes grants for acquiring public access easements through private lands.

Most Western states have adopted walk-in access programs, charging visitors entry to state trust lands, to varying results, according to the study. Idaho’s Access Yes and New Mexico’s Open Gate programs have opened almost 1 million acres in Idaho and tens of thousands of acres in New Mexico for hunters by leasing access through public lands. A similar program in Washington state opened up 606,000 acres, including 23,700 acres of landlocked state trust lands.

The only Mountain West state without such a program is Nevada, according to the study.

“While not a permanent solution because these agreements require perpetual renewal, walk-in programs can be especially valuable in opening smaller and isolated parcels of state and federal lands to which it would be difficult or impractical to open access by any other means,” the study says.

The public can read the studies and learn more about the issue at www.unlockingpubliclands.org.

Total Landlocked Acres - State Lands

  • Arizona: 1,310,000 acres
  • California: 38,000 acres
  • Colorado: 435,000 acres
  • Idaho: 71,000 acres
  • Montana: 1,560,000 acres
  • Nevada: < 1,000 acres
  • New Mexico: 1,350,000 acres
  • Oregon: 47,000 acres
  • Utah: 116,000 acres
  • Washington: 316,000 acres
  • Wyoming: 1,110,000 acres

Total Landlocked Acres - Federal Lands

  • Arizona: 243,000 acres
  • California: 492,000 acres
  • Colorado: 269,000 acres
  • Idaho: 208,000 acres
  • Montana: 1,520,000 acres
  • Nevada: 2,050,000 acres
  • New Mexico: 554,000 acres
  • Oregon: 443,000 acres
  • Utah: 264,000 acres
  • Washington: 121,000 acres
  • Wyoming: 3,050,000 acres

Editor’s note: The study by onX and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership was released Monday at TRCP’s Western Media Summit, sponsored by REI and hosted at the REI Seattle Flagship store.

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