Across the West, more than 9.5 million acres of public land is surrounded by private land, making it inaccessible to the average hunter, angler or other outdoor recreationist, according to a new study by mapping company onX and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
About one-third of that land is in Wyoming.
“Back when private-land permissions were readily acquired, this was not a serious obstacle to sporting access,” the report reads. “But as land ownership patterns have shifted, sportsmen and women more and more frequently encounter no-trespassing signs and gated roads, and inaccessible public lands now present a major barrier to hunting and fishing.”
The information was compiled as a way to illuminate the challenges facing outdoor recreationists in the West and also potential solutions. One of the best possibilities, sportsmen’s groups say, is to reauthorize the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, a pot of offshore oil and gas royalties that will expire at the end of September without Congressional action.
Few times is the issue of landlocked public land clearer than right now, hunters say, as most bird and big game seasons across the state begin to open.
Any discussion of landlocked public lands in the West first requires an explanation.
About 640 million acres across the country are managed by federal agencies including the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the National Park Service. States also have their own public land managed locally. Depending on the area, and the managing agency, each may have varied restrictions on use. People can hunt, fish and camp nearly anywhere on Forest Service land, for example, but in Wyoming, users cannot camp on state land outside of a designated campground.
Within that 640 million acres of public land are parcels large and small surrounded by private land. Without a public road connecting them to another public parcel, they are rendered effectively off-limits.
In order to complete the study, onX looked at the federal public lands in 13 western states that do not have permanent, legal ways for people to gain access.
Wyoming not only has the most acres of public land surrounded by private – 3.05 million — it also has the largest individual parcel at 22,264 acres, according to the study.
“Now, we know better than ever before that these resources play a vital role in maintaining a vast $887-billion outdoor recreation economy, and Americans value our public land as a means of escaping crowded cities and schedules,” the report stated. “In fact, there is a growing need to open overlooked and off-limits public lands to the general public.”
What's being done?
On the ground, for the average hunter, angler or outdoor recreationist, this data looks like a lot of no-trespassing signs and fences, said Buzz Hettick, a Laramie hunter and chairman of the Wyoming chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
Each fall he heads out into Wyoming’s mountains and plains to scout for new hunting areas and runs into various parcels blocked by private land. It’s frustrating, he said, and also means that with fewer sections available to the public, those places that are accessible are ever more crowded.
“Having people spread out and access public land, it’s a better experience for people,” he said. “There’s a few landowners in checkerboard that are good and allow access, but there’s a lot that don’t.”
Limited public access for hunting can make it tricky for wildlife managers to regulate herd sizes, said Brian Olsen, Casper regional supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
The western half of the state has significantly more public land, and access to public land, than the eastern half, he said, which makes herds sometimes harder to manage in the eastern side.
But there are potential solutions. Game and Fish runs a program called Access Yes, which pays private landowners to offer hunting and fishing access. Some nonprofit conservation groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Pheasants Forever dedicate thousands of dollars each year to purchasing easements from landowners to offer access to landlocked parcels.
Reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund would be one of the best ways, said Joel Webster, the director for TRCP’s Center for Western Lands.
The fund started in 1965 as a way to use off-shore oil and gas royalties to protect and enhance land and water recreation opportunities. It was reauthorized in 1990, and was allowed to expire briefly in 2015. It was then reauthorized for another three years and is set to expire once again Sept. 30.
The money has typically been used to build everything from parks and soccer fields to creating fishing accesses and purchasing private land stuck within popular national parks or wilderness areas.
It could also be used to buy small easements or parcels of land to open up landlocked pieces, Webster said.
Wyoming’s Sen. John Barrasso said Congress is debating reauthorization proposals.
“Over the years, the program funding shifted from being locally focused to being primarily Washington focused,” he wrote in an email. “As we work to reauthorize the LWCF, I will continue to pursue reforms to return the program closer to its original intent. Prioritizing funding for states will give local land managers in Wyoming the resources they need to increase opportunities for outdoor recreation and address other community priorities.”
The fund was originally intended to use up to $900 million for state and federal projects across the country. Outdoor advocates are asking that it be permanently reauthorized and fully funded to continue pumping billions of dollars into the country’s outdoor resources, including helping unlock inaccessible pieces of public land.