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

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

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