Want public access to private land? There’s an app for that.

 

Not a day goes by without someone bemoaning the lack of public access to private lands in the West. Gone are the good old days, some say, when landowners welcomed visitors. Today, it often seems like there are “NO TRESPASSING” signs across every gate and orange paint on every fence post, blocking public access to hiking, fishing and other recreation opportunities on private lands.

Why are landowners so reluctant to provide public access? The problem might be that we just haven’t figured out a simple and effective way to work with them. Knocking on doors to ask permission can be awkward and time-consuming, so many people avoid asking altogether. And while most of us treat other people’s private property with respect, a few bad apples can make landowners wary about allowing any access.

Rutebaga/Wikimedia Commons

That might be changing. Consider the sharing economy, which is revolutionizing the way we tackle similar problems elsewhere. From Airbnb and Uber to countless startups in between, entrepreneurs are finding new ways to “rent” underused assets, such as vehicles and spare bedrooms. Technology reduces the transaction costs between suppliers and demanders, making sharing easier and cheaper than ever before.

The challenge is to build a platform that connects users and landowners and creates a sense of trust. On Airbnb, homeowners invite total strangers to sleep in their own homes. On Uber, drivers pick up passengers they don’t know. Online reviews, ratings systems and background checks provide some reassurances for both sides, fostering trust among suppliers and demanders.

With the tap of your smartphone, you could rent hiking access to a local property, book a fishing pass to a neighbor’s spring creek, or lease short-term hunting access on a nearby ranch. Willing landowners could enroll in an online service, set a price, define certain conditions and limits, and receive the assurance that their property would be treated with respect. In the process, they could diversify their incomes and have even greater incentives to restore or conserve their land.

To limited extent, this is already happening. Hipcamp, a venture capital-funded startup based in San Francisco, is providing camping opportunities on private lands. The company has about 60 landowners enrolled in its “land-sharing” program, with prices ranging from $30 to $300 per night. Likewise, in Michigan, a college student is creating a land-sharing app, called Rod, Gun, and Bow, that would allow hunters and anglers to lease private land on a short-term basis.

These services help resolve another important issue: liability concerns. Hipcamp provides liability insurance and a property-protection plan to protect landowners from accidents or reimburse them for any damages caused by campers. A single-strike policy also ensures that rule-breakers are swiftly identified and banned from the service.

All across the West, there are potential suppliers of outdoor recreational experiences. Most are not opposed to public access. They simply don’t want their private land open to everyone, just as homeowners on Airbnb don’t want everyone sleeping in their spare bedrooms. Landowners, like all of us, need to have some control and protection against possible damages to their property. The sharing economy can provide that.

While not every public-access concern can be resolved in this manner — battles over prescriptive easements and access to public roads are much more complicated legal questions — the underlying principle remains: As recreationists, we need to find better ways to work with landowners, not against them.

This is a radical departure from the way we typically approach public access in the West. Here in Montana, for instance, we pass laws that mandate public access across streams on private property, try to penalize private landowners who don’t allow public hunting, and pressure companies to allow free access to private timberlands. But these approaches can backfire, straining relationships with landowners and making them even more reluctant to grant access. Worse yet, by attempting to wrest control away from landowners, they can undermine their incentives to invest in private-land conservation.

So, instead, what if we took a sharing-economy approach to public access in the West? The West, and the people who share it, might be better off for it. 

Shawn Regan is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana, and a former backcountry ranger for Olympic National Park.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.