Land locked to public owners

4 million acres of public lands in West remain inaccessible

More than 4 million acres of public lands in the West - roughly the size of New Jersey - are inaccessible to the public as a result of land ownership patterns, absent entry points, and a failure to remove barriers to entry, according to a new report by the Center for Western Priorities. These shuttered lands reduce opportunities for outdoor recreation in western states and stymie nearby communities from reaping the employment opportunities and economic benefits these lands provide.

"We have extraordinary public lands that the public can't even set foot on, let alone use for hunting, fishing, or camping, the activities that are synonymous with our beloved public lands," said Center for Western Priorities' Trevor Kincaid. "Keeping people locked out of the land they own is like letting a '57 Corvette rust in your backyard. Just a waste."

The first-of-its-kind analysis was completed by CWP using GIS mapping technology to quantify the amount of inaccessible public lands in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. CWP was able to provide state-by-state and total acreage for the Western region it reviewed.

Public lands are inaccessible for a variety of reasons. The quilt of land owners - federal, state, local, tribal, and private - can make it difficult to access public lands without trespassing. Lands may be completely surrounded by private lands. There may be a public road running through private property, which has been closed off. Some landowners have even been known to illegally fence off public roads, shutting out the public from crossing onto public lands.

The report points to tools available for the federal government to enhance access onto public lands. These include the Land and Water Conservation Fund - a critical source of funding for conservation which Congress chronically underfunds - along with the HUNT Act legislation proposed by Senator Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., to reduce the number of inaccessible acres.

"This is not an insurmountable access obstacle," said CWP's Policy Director Greg Zimmerman. "There are viable, common sense solutions available at our fingertips that will open the gates to 4 million acres of treasured public space. People are clamoring for outdoor playgrounds to explore and enjoy, the government shutdown showed us that, so we would be smart to heed that call and expand the places the public can enjoy."

Open and accessible public lands are essential to hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation in the West, and the economic activity they derive. Examples of inaccessible public lands include the Sabinoso Wilderness and the Cowboy Springs Wilderness Study Area in New Mexico and the Fortification Creek Wilderness Study Area in Wyoming.

Purchased, and yet closed to the public, the 11,760-acre Lone Mesa State Park rests in almost complete solitude 20 miles north of Dolores. It is open on a limited basis during hunting season, but the general public will have to wait until Colorado State Parks can gather the funds to put in camp sites and trail systems.

Purchased in June 1999, Lone Mesa State Park, cost a little over $6 million. The park was named after Lone Mesa Ranch, the largest of three adjoining ranches in Dolores County that complete the park. In addition to the pristine ranches, the park also includes 1,850 acres of isolated BLM lands, and is adjacent to the San Juan National Forest and a section of state school land.