Public lands with no way in: New report details access problems


What do the Troublesome Wilderness Study Area in Colorado, the Sabinoso Wilderness and Cowboy Springs WSA in New Mexico, and the Fortification Creek WSA in Wyoming have in common?

They’re all public lands – and none of them can be reached by the public.

Western lands have long had a patchwork of owners: federal, state, local, tribal and private. In the late 1800s, the federal government gave railroad companies every other square mile along rail corridors, creating a public-private checkerboard. But because it’s illegal to even step across a corner from one public parcel to another, many of those pieces of land remain inaccessible. Others are marooned in a sea of private property with no right of way. Some landowners even illegally close public roads across their holdings.

In the Rocky Mountain West, more than 4 million acres of federal public land are effectively off-limits, because there’s no permanent, legal way to access them. The nonpartisan Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based group focusing on public-land protection, recently used GIS mapping to quantify such “shuttered” lands, mostly managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Their analysis, which the Center describes as "conservative," came up with the  acreage figures shown in the map.

Nearly 4 million acres of federal land in the Rocky Mountain West have no legal access. Image from the Center for Western Priorities. Data Analysis: Josh Gage, Gage Cartographics.

Federal land managers often can’t get access to those parcels either, as the Bozeman Daily Chronicle notes. So those lands effectively become part of the private domain of adjoining landowners.

“We have no authority over private land, so unless we have permission, we cannot access that,” BLM spokesman Brad Purdy said. “These little pieces are not only difficult for the public to access but they’re difficult for us to manage.”

But private-property rights advocates defend the ability of landowners to close roads across their property. Reports the Great Falls Tribune:

PERC President Anderson, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, says a well-organized effort is underway by access groups that believe public access to public and even private resources is “somehow a God-given, Constitution-given, somehow-given right.” In his view, the public and public agencies are becoming more aggressive in seeking public access through private property.

HCN has been covering public-lands access issues for decades. Back in 1998, we published a feature story called “Private rights vs. public lands,” describing the problem. We wrote in 2000 about corporate ranchers blocking access, in 2005 about the increasing problem of private owners locking out the public, and in 2011 about owners who put “No Trespassing” signs on public land.

“There is no direct public access to the North Fork Wilderness Study Area” in Wyoming, according to the BLM website. But, if you can get permission to cross the surrounding private lands, “The WSA offers outstanding opportunities for the user to experience primitive recreation.” Photograph courtesy Ecoflight.

The new Center for Western Priorities report, as you’d expect, covers the many reasons why access is important. Public lands contribute to the economies of local communities and provide great recreation and hunting opportunities:

Researchers have found that access to protected public lands promotes jobs and produces higher incomes. A recent study found that job growth over the last four decades in Western counties with significant protected public lands—like parks, monuments and wilderness—is four times higher than in counties without protected lands.

Ensuring access is critical to supporting and promoting America’s growing outdoor recreation industry. … In Western states, outdoor recreation brings billions into the economy each year: consumers spend $13.2 billion annually in Colorado on outdoor recreation; $6.1 billion in New Mexico, and $5.8 billion in Montana.

Open and accessible public lands are an essential element of outdoor recreation in the Rocky Mountain West. As an example, 89 percent of hunters in New Mexico hunt on public lands. In Utah and Wyoming, 83 percent of hunters use public lands to hunt.

Congress has tried to tackle these problems. In 2011 Senators Jon Tester, D-Mont., Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, introduced the “Making Public Lands Public Act”, but it failed to pass. The HUNT Act, introduced by Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., in September, would improve hunting and recreation access.

One of the easiest ways to resolve access problems is by paying landowners for easements across their property. The nation’s main source of funding for buying easements and other private land is the Land and Water Conservation Fund – but Congress usually gives it considerably less than half of the $900 million in energy royalties it’s allocated.

Jodi Peterson is the managing editor of High Country News.

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