This land is whose land?

 

Every week, the editors of High Country News sit in a small, lime-sherbet-colored conference room and debate what stories we should cover. Should we tackle legalized marijuana, since the West is leading the charge, or has that story become too “national?” How about North Dakota’s response to the drop in oil prices — is it still too early to write about that? We bat around such questions while evaluating and often turning down freelance pitches. The proposed stories might sound good, but, sadly, they’re just not HCN stories.

Over the years, we’ve broadened our understanding of what constitutes an HCN story. When we get a good pitch about a battle on public lands, though, there’s no hesitation: All eyes in the room light up. “That’s down the center of our plate,” someone will intone as heads bob up and down.  We all know that HCN exists largely because of the national forests, parks, wildlife refuges and BLM lands; they are the connective tissues that bind this region together and differentiate it from the rest of the country and, indeed, the world. Where else does the average citizen have the ability to explore unfettered more than half a billion acres of mountains, canyons, deserts and grasslands?

And yet the West’s public lands have always seemed to belong to some folks more than others. A relatively small number of ranchers have the right to graze livestock on them; private companies drill for oil and gas, cut timber and dig for minerals on them; ski resorts charge folks a premium to slide down runs carved out from the public domain. And, as Montana writer Marshall Swearingen explores in our cover story, private landowners can secure almost exclusive access to adjacent public lands simply by locking a gate and putting up a “no trespassing” sign.

That’s infuriating to those hunters, hikers and other recreationists who in recent years have seen roads long opened to the public get shuttered off by new landowners who want more privacy or, more insidiously, exclusive access to public lands for the patrons of their guest ranch or outfitting business. It can amount to a privatization of a public resource, yet, as Swearingen discovers, access advocates face an uphill battle to legally prove that historic access routes should remain open. In many cases the paperwork simply doesn’t exist.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that in some places, activists, land agencies, county governments and landowners have worked out ways to keep the gates open while respecting private property rights. We hope to see more of these success stories in coming years and write about them in the magazine.

In the meantime, keep your eye out for good stories about legalized pot and plummeting oil prices. And if you think we’re missing a big story, send a tip to [email protected].

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