Report: 4 Million Acres of Public Lands Are Off Limits Because of No Legal Access

Report: 4 Million Acres of Public Lands Are Off Limits Because of No Legal Access

What do the Troublesome Wilderness Study Area in Colorado, the Sabinoso Wilderness and Cowboy Springs WSA in New Mexico, and


adventure journal landlocked public lands

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 private 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 four 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.

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.

The new Center for Western Priorities report 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, Montana Democratic Senator Jon Tester, Idaho Republican Senator Jim Risch, and Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman introduced the “Making Public Lands Public Act,” but it failed to pass. The HUNT Act, introduced by New Mexico Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich 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.


Read the full report from Center for Western Priorities here.


This article originally appeared in High Country News. Illustration via Center for Western Priorities.


Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com.


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Showing 37 comments
  • Adam Caimi
    Adam Caimi
    Reply

    Isn’t that a good thing? Do we need to be able to go EVERYWHERE?

  • Adam Caimi
    Adam Caimi
    Reply

    Isn’t that a good thing? Do we need to be able to go EVERYWHERE?

  • Adam Caimi
    Adam Caimi
    Reply

    Isn’t that a good thing? Do we need to be able to go EVERYWHERE?

  • Barry Pittman
    Barry Pittman
    Reply

    Um, yes, if I own it, I would at least like access to it.

  • Barry Pittman
    Barry Pittman
    Reply

    Um, yes, if I own it, I would at least like access to it.

  • Barry Pittman
    Barry Pittman
    Reply

    Um, yes, if I own it, I would at least like access to it.

  • Barry Pittman
    Barry Pittman
    Reply

    Basically, landlocked public lands become a private hunting preserve for the neighboring land owners.

  • Barry Pittman
    Barry Pittman
    Reply

    Basically, landlocked public lands become a private hunting preserve for the neighboring land owners.

  • Barry Pittman
    Barry Pittman
    Reply

    Basically, landlocked public lands become a private hunting preserve for the neighboring land owners.

  • Barry Pittman
    Barry Pittman
    Reply

    …but wait, the Forest Service hasn’t built roads, with our tax dollars, into these places to log them?

  • Barry Pittman
    Barry Pittman
    Reply

    …but wait, the Forest Service hasn’t built roads, with our tax dollars, into these places to log them?

  • Barry Pittman
    Barry Pittman
    Reply

    …but wait, the Forest Service hasn’t built roads, with our tax dollars, into these places to log them?

  • Greg Smith
    Greg Smith
    Reply

    Doesn’t sound like an entirely bad thing to me.

  • Greg Smith
    Greg Smith
    Reply

    Doesn’t sound like an entirely bad thing to me.

  • Greg Smith
    Greg Smith
    Reply

    Doesn’t sound like an entirely bad thing to me.

  • alex
    Reply

    Wilderness advocates should be happy that public lands are inaccessible… the less people the better in their opinion.
    As for me, I think Wilderness should be open to mountain bikes.

  • Jack Albano
    Jack Albano
    Reply

    Public lands are for the people

  • Jay Jurkowitsch
    Jay Jurkowitsch
    Reply

    Jack A. – NOT all people, some peoples misuse of the land is almost as bad as development…

  • Julia Kintsch
    Julia Kintsch
    Reply

    The value of public lands to the people goes far beyond our access to them.

  • Dave May
    Dave May
    Reply

    Yeah, this doesn’t just have to do with cars. It means that we can’t access them at all, without crossing private property.

  • Dave May
    Dave May
    Reply

    Yeah, this doesn’t just have to do with cars. It means that we can’t access them at all, without crossing private property.

  • James
    Reply

    “Inaccessible” isn’t limited to ATVs and other vehicles. It means nothing on foot, mountain bike, horseback, etc. Private land surrounded tax payer-funded public land has shut up everything to everyone except for those willing to pay $10,000 or more per hunt. And not all private land has an easement through the Forest Service, state, or BLM to access public lands through private. Some landowners allow it, but most don’t. So these areas being inaccessible is NOT a good thing because it doesn’t mean “a wilderness area where building is prohibited.” It’s land we pay for that we may never be allowed to step foot on.

  • reg
    Reply

    and here we go with the age old preservation vs. conservation debate

  • Sidney Stevens
    Sidney Stevens
    Reply

    is it just in these states? if so, what happened to make it so, keep it so? I wonder if … the government uses these isolated parcels for anything.

  • Jim McCoy
    Jim McCoy
    Reply

    The way I see it, and have seen how the USFS is operating lately, that is the way they would rather keep those lands. They are closing roads, and certain user groups out, of all kinds of areas. Making or obtaining access to those areas would cost money and mean they would have to actively manage it. More work & expenses. I can’t see them going for that. My perception the past 5 years….. The forest service is not our friends. I have seen just too much rampant closure with no public input, and some of them very shady sneaky operations. So……I really don’t see them giving a hoot about you and I being able to access them, despite what they say in that article. They are all about smoke and mirrors….. It doesn’t matter how responsible the bulk of people are. As soon as a handful dirt bags mess up an area, the FS shuts it down to everyone. That is the “policy” I am seeing here in Colorado.

  • Christine Weimer
    Christine Weimer
    Reply

    I want my Idaho public land!! Come on people we must do something about this!

  • JM
    Reply

    I’m pretty stunned by many of the responses here… Not sure if many people simply skimmed without full comprehension or what…

    – This doesn’t mean that the area is “wilderness”
    – It doesn’t mean that the area lacks public roads so only the “evil” internal combustion engines are kept out.

    It means that you can’t access it. It means I can’t access it. It means that the feds can’t access it.
    The only people who CAN access it are those who own the surrounding land. They are free to hunt, fish, ride motorcycles, and otherwise recreate without the hassles of other people.

    I sure wish I had one of those chunks of property…

  • Troy Lincoln
    Reply

    Yeah, because something is sectioned off by private land owners and therefore not visited by you and I (assuming we aren’t the landowners) does not then make it wilderness or even unvisited. Adjacent land owners would have access and probably unfettered by the laws that govern the land since, as stated, the enforcing agencies often have no access. Sounds like another form of land grab.

  • Robert Stokes
    Reply

    As an expat American now living in Scotland I’ve got what I can only describe as a confused perspective on this topic. You see over here there is no such thing as trespassing, at least not the way we understand it in the States. I can step out the door of my home just outside of Aberdeen and start walking southwest until I get to Glasgow, or beyond, crossing any and every private parcel of land along the way. Within reason (no trampling of farm crops or traipsing through back yards or industrial sites) I can wander – and camp – wherever the hell I want, without fear of being shot at by a landowner.

    Now, the flip side of this is the fact that Scotland probably has the most inequitable distribution of land ownership anywhere in the developed world, with more than half of the country being owned by less than 500 people. Unlike the U.S. (especially the west of course) Scotland has hardly any land in public ownership. Even Scotland’s (and the UK’s) largest national park, the Cairngorms, is overwhelmingly comprised of private estates. And contrary to popular perception, Scotland is far from an undeveloped wilderness. It’s not urbanised and suburbanised, true, but it’s also not wilderness. For the most part these massive private estates are countryside, managed for hunting, fishing, forestry and farming. Here too there is a stark contrast between the U.S., where hunting and fishing are culturally and economically middle class activities, and Scotland, where you need pretty deep pockets for the privilege of killing a grouse, deer or salmon.

    There are of course benefits and drawbacks to both systems. Growing up as an American I’m hard wired to like the idea of being lord and master of my own little 10 acre kingdom. But I’m also really digging the freedom to roam I have here in Scotland. Nervously enjoying I should say, as I still find myself on the lookout for angry, armed landowners. Old habits and all that. But would I want to entrust my fellow Americans with the same free roaming privileges in the States? Hmm, I’m not so sure.

  • D
    Reply

    Wow……. You can see the difference between people who talk about public land and the people that actully use and recreate on it. This has NOTHING to do with preservation or conservation, it has to do with limiting access to a select few. While making a ton of cash by selling access to land the public owns. People aren’t paying to hunt or use their land, they are paying to pass thru to get to public land! There are some reallllly sheepish people commenting here.

  • Jay Long
    Reply

    Very interesting stuff. I can see where some people would like to keep these lands untouched, but I also recognize that these are publicly funded areas. Seems the government’s M.O. is at work as usual: our tax dollars working hard to benefit who? Eye-opening article.

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