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Landlocked: The Issues of America’s Inaccessible Public Lands

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As Americans and outdoorsmen, we have certain rights. The right to bear arms, the right to provide for our families by harvesting fish and game, and the right to hunt, fish, and gather on America’s public lands are all essential aspects of being a sportsman. Yet the unfortunate reality is that massive plots of public land that we have a right to recreate on are simply impossible to reach. This is because many of these local, state, and federal lands are entirely surrounded by uncross-able private land with no public roads or trails providing access to them. This guarantees that they can only be accessed and hunted by private landowners or those with permission to cross the private land. Essentially millions of acres of land that we as American hunters have a right to recreate upon have become entirely landlocked. It’s a problem that is affecting millions of hunters across the country and one that, as our population continues to expand, may eventually lead to the loss of our hunting rights as we know them.

A Growing Problem

Over the last twenty years, more than 2 millions acres of public land once enjoyed by hunters across the country have become landlocked by private landowners buying up property. In the South, while National Forests still provide plenty of public hunting access through National Forests, more than 175,000 acres of public land have now become inaccessible to hunters and anglers across states like Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas,. In places like New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey where public land access is already limited by massive municipalities, more than 80,000 acres of public land has been made inaccessible by having no permanent legal public access to it. The problem is perhaps worst of all in the West. In states like Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and especially Montana—states with extraordinary hunting and a large variety of big-game animals – there is absolutely immense amount of entirely landlocked public land. In Montana alone, over 3 million acres of state and federal land is considered inaccessible to the public!

As the population of hunters and anglers increases, so too does the need for access to these public lands. Without access, much of the public land that is accessible is becoming overcrowded. Hunters using these lands are constantly stepping on each other’s toes and are forced to push themselves further and farther to gain access to land without other hunters. Additionally, the game animals in these places are either being wiped out of the area from overhunting, or they are being driven out by continual hunting pressure, making these places increasingly difficult to hunt. Finally, non-hunters recreate on this land as well, and the more crowded an area is with hunters, the more chance for conflicts to arise between hunters and non-hunters. This makes the need for access to these landlocked lands vital if we expect to have land to hunt and fish in the future.

Unlocking The Land

Thankfully there are things being done to help hunters enter this inaccessible land. In a new study done by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, it was discovered that there are over 9.5 million acres of public land in the United States considered to be landlocked. Up until now, there was very little being done to understand just how much public land was considered inaccessible. Once discovered, the TRCP, in partnership with the mapping app OnX, set out to discover a solution for unlocking these public lands.

While OnX created indepth hunting maps that reveal critical access points to these lands, their official partnership with the TRCP in 2018 took it a step further by approaching the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Created by Congress in 1964, the LWCF pays for voluntary easement and acquisition agreements with private landowners. Since it’s inception, the LWCF has opened access to over 5 million acres of public land. Thanks to the efforts of the TRCP and OnX, Congress permanently authorized the LWCF fund in 2019, ensuring that the land easements and public access points will be accessible for the foreseeable future. However, though authorized to allocate over $900 million dollars to the LWCF annually, Congress has used, on average, only around half of that funding towards opening the land. The LWCF has also spent only $3.9 billion into state land grants even though over $16 billion has been available since its inception 5 decades ago. According to the TRCP these excess funds are available to use towards opening public lands right now, so the conservation partnership is currently working with individual state agencies to take advantage of these funds by factoring access to landlocked public lands into their annual spending allotment.

Additionally, certain states are adopting their own access programs. Most western states have created their own walk-in access programs through Block Land Management programs available to private landowners or charging individual hunters a daily access fee to use the land. These programs have opened well over a million acres of otherwise inaccessible public lands. However, while programs like this are helpful, they are not a permanent solution because they require perpetual renewal and landowner agreement to sustain. For now though they are better than nothing.

What We Can Do

As hunters we have a right to hunt public lands, but with that right comes responsibility. We have to care for and maintain these lands for future hunting generations which means keeping them clean and healthy, as well as exercising responsible hunting practices. We must not overharvest game animals in areas that can’t support such losses. We need to clean up after ourselves, not leave our garbage or carcasses behind, and above all we need to show respect and gratitude toward landowners who allow us to pass through their land for public land access. When it comes down to it, it’s the private landowners that will help us open these landlocked lands to the public, which will create more hunting opportunities for everyone, creating a better hunting future for us all.

To donate to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership click here.

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