We Have Millions of Acres of Public Land We Can't Access. It's Time to Change That.

The Western U.S. is rife with forests and deserts that you can't visit. A new law could fix that—if we're willing to fight for it.
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A private property sign

America’s public land system is the envy of the world.

It’s a testament to planning, the future, and our collective ability to project our values and way of life over longer intervals than the human life span. Across its various designations, the federal system currently sets aside 640 million total acres of some of the most scenic, richly resourced lands in our country for preservation and for exploitation by extractive industries. But getting there isn’t easy; in some cases, it’s illegal.

Across the West, state and federal lands are being cordoned off by private landowners, creating a vast inventory of landlocked acreage that is owned by a public that cannot access it.

A 2019 study, conducted by digital-mapping firm onX in association with the pro-hunting group Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, puts the figure at 16 million acres of state and federal land that lacks a legal public access point. That’s equivalent to 4.75 Death Valleys, the largest national park complex in the Lower 48, and slightly smaller than Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, our largest public forest.

The reason behind these no-access lands is ingrained in the history of the West. The government once owned huge tracts of territory, which it sold off to fund various projects or granted to states to set up townships, creating a mosaic of parcels with different ownership. In many cases, the government was left holding the less-desirable parcels (those that lacked easy access to a road), while private landowners with shrewd buying strategies sewed up their landholdings to encircle a piece of public land.

In previous generations, Western landowners (mainly ranchers) who abutted public land had handshake agreements to grant access to low-impact recreationists, like hikers and hunters. But as the era of working ranches sunsets across the West, owing in part to government restrictions on rangeland grazing, many of those parcels are being sold to large, national developers or wealthy hobby-ranchers who stop honoring such agreements.

In effect, by denying access to adjacent public lands, those landowners are converting public parcels into private backyards, while keeping taxpayers on the financial hook to administer them.

Moreover, as the makeup of land use in the West continues to evolve away from active use of the land (ranching, grazing, and farming) to become developments, resorts, or vacation homes, the trend, if unchallenged, is set to continue.

While extractive industries can and do purchase rights-of-way from private landowners, there hasn’t been a rising voice of recreationists who might want to explore public terrain away from increasingly crowded parks. We now have an opportunity to change that.

In June 2020, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan bill, called the Great American Outdoors Act, which would fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), the primary tool for improving public access on a federal level (among other issues, like the legendary deferred-maintenance backlog in the national park system). At press time, the House had indicated it would take up the measure in late July and President Trump has said he’d sign it. [Editor's Note: The Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law on August 4, 2020.]

That’s a huge win for hikers, hunters, and anglers, and promises to inject up to $1.9 billion, sourced from drilling and energy-exploration fees, into shoring up our public lands and parks. But it makes no specific earmark for improving public access to these captive lands. That’s where the hiking public comes in.

The LWCF puts the onus on states to request appropriations according to a public document called a Stateside Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, which must be updated every five years. For the first time in a generation, there is about to be a lot more federal funding up for grabs to support such plans. Hikers must participate in this public process to lobby for improved access to public land.

Yes, our public land system protects some of the wildest, most scenic terrain in the world. But not even the most ardent and active among us know precisely how good it is. As our old favorite spots become more crowded with a welcome influx of recreational visits to public lands, we need to identify the hidden gems in the land we already own but cannot get to.

We don’t require new land for this; we simply need to define the bounds of our shared natural spaces and influence the process to prioritize legal ways to hike in them. What good is land we can’t use?