By E. Donnall Thomas Jr.
One of Arizona’s great attractions as a bird hunting destination is the vast amount of public land it contains. After watching private-land hunting opportunities decrease relentlessly in our home state of Montana during the past decade, my wife, Lori, and I found such ready access to bird cover so appealing that we started spending our winters there in the heart of quail country.
One favorite hunting spot consisted of several thousand acres managed by the US Forest Service and loaded with quail. The only access came from a single “road,” which was little more than a rutted two-track running across a short section of private ranchland. For years the owner allowed hunters to use the road to reach the public land. Then one day I found the gate at the edge of the private parcel closed and locked. I looked at a number of possible ways to access the public ground on foot, but they also ran across parcels of posted land. More good bird cover than I could hunt in a week had become inaccessible.
During the past decade versions of this scenario have been playing out all across the West, largely due to changing patterns of land use and ownership. More than half of the private property in Montana now belongs to nonresidents, and they didn’t come to enjoy the opera. Many new arrivals soon discovered that by closing short segments of road on their property they could convert vast tracts of public land into their own playgrounds, especially when other private property encircled adjoining public land. While many of us knew about isolated instances of this phenomenon, it was difficult to obtain objective data to document the extent of the problem. Recently, the sportsman-driven Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) gathered this information with technical assistance from onX Hunt, a mobile-phone app. (For the full report, visit trcp.org and search for “landlocked.”) The results should be of deep concern to any of the 72 percent of hunters who the US Fish and Wildlife Service have identified as being partly or totally dependent on public land for hunting opportunities.
TRCP’s first study focused on federal lands. The Bureau of Land Management oversees the vast majority (93 percent) of this land, with smaller amounts (4 percent) managed by the Forest Service and a few smaller agencies. In total more than 9.5 million acres of Western federal land currently has no legal access. The amounts vary considerably by state, led by Wyoming (3 million acres), Nevada (2 million acres) and Montana (1.5 million acres).
In order to spur economic development in the West, the federal government defrayed the cost of building railroads by deeding alternate sections of land on either side of the tracks to the railroad companies. The land was surveyed in “checkerboard” fashion, which led to a hodgepodge of public and private property when the railroads eventually sold their land to private parties. Furthermore, most Western states made “corner crossing” illegal. This meant that when a hunter reaches a right-angle intersection between public and private section lines, he cannot step across the corner even though neither foot ever touches private land. This policy effectively made the landowner the proprietor of the airspace over his property.
TRCP then investigated public lands owned by the states and showed that 6.3 million acres of state land around the West lacks legal access. Again, the breakdown by state varies, with the largest amounts in Montana (1.5 million acres), Arizona (1.3 million acres), New Mexico (1.3 million acres) and Wyoming (1.1 million acres).
The federal government gave these lands to the states at the time of statehood, with the purpose of generating revenue for public programs like schools, usually by leasing grazing rights. With the exception of Colorado, states left these lands open to recreational activities, including hunting. Land was chosen by giving specific sections in every township to the state. As a result of this selection process, many of these parcels were surrounded by private property and became inaccessible to the public.
These studies show that hunters cannot legally reach nearly 16 million acres of public land in the West without landowner permission. All this terrain is not prime wildlife habitat, but a lot of it is. Since most federal land managed by the BLM has limited agricultural value, it is most valuable as cover for dryland species such as chukar, quail and prairie grouse. Because their selection process was made irrespective of agricultural value, many state-trust sections offer excellent hunting for species as diverse as pheasants and waterfowl—if you can get to them.
Solving the problem will be challenging but not impossible. At the federal level, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) provides “matching grants to state and local governments for the acquisition and development of public outdoor recreation areas,” by land swaps, easements and land purchases. It’s important that Congress makes LWCF funding permanent rather than requiring frequent renewals. The money—obtained from leasing offshore drilling rights—is there. However, Congress has diverted $20 billion of those revenues to other purposes.
Individual states are pursuing innovative programs to improve access to the lands they manage. Montana, whose programs I know best, is an excellent example. The Unlocking Public Lands program provides tax credits to willing landowners who provide access to state lands through their property. The 2019 Public Access to Lands Act authorizes direct payments to landowners who provide access while granting them wide latitude to negotiate the details. The Montana Public Lands Network provides funds to purchase easements from cooperating landowners. Similar programs are now at work in a number of Western states.
Landlocked public lands are depriving hunters of countless opportunities. The most important action we can take is to support groups combatting the problem and to remind our legislators how important the issue is to us. And that we vote.
For more information, contact the following organizations: Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Montana’s Public Land/Water Access Association and the National Wildlife Federation.