Public land hunters face a dilemma. Conservation organizations and state agencies in recent years have issued dire warnings about the declining percentage of Americans who hunt. At the same time, those who hunt and recreate on public land have seen increased traffic, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated complaints of overcrowding.
Some have proposed reducing hunter recruitment efforts, but there is another obvious solution: increase the area of accessible public land.
Easier said than done, you might say. But onXmaps and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership have catalyzed a movement that could provide access to more than 16 million acres of public land. This land is already publicly owned, but because it is surrounded by private parcels, it is not legally accessible. These areas are what these organizations describe as “landlocked”.
MeatEater highlighted this issue on the main podcast when onX launched #projectlandlocked in 2018. Since then, the mapping company has issued five additional reports highlighting the fact that this isn’t just an issue on public lands in western states.
OnX identified 174,000 acres of landlocked public land in the southern states, 80,000 acres in the mid-Atlantic states, and 303,000 acres in the upper Midwest. Additionally, they found 6.35 million acres of state-owned landlocked land in Western states along with the 9.52 million they found on federal land.
Hunters across the country legally own this land as US citizens, but cannot access it without a helicopter. There is a growing demand to give these hunters what they paid for and, perhaps, ease the overcrowding and recruitment dilemma that has plagued the outdoor community.
How do public lands become “landlocked”?
OnX defines landlocked public lands as those parcels that are “surrounded by private land without a public road touching the edge of that public land or between or crossing those lands,” according to Lisa Nichols, access defense manager for onX. . The mapping company has developed an automated analytics that analyzes its data to identify landlocked areas. OnX analysts perform quality control tests to ensure that the program works correctly.
Public lands were made landlocked through a variety of means, but most of the problem stems from government initiatives from the 1860s onward to stimulate westward expansion of the country. To incentivize railroad companies to build transcontinental tracks, Congress passed a series of land grants that gave builders 10 1-square-mile parcels for every mile of track they laid. Federal officials often awarded this land in checkerboard patterns with the railroad receiving odd-numbered blocks and the federal government retaining even ones. The idea was that the remaining federal blocks would increase in value after the completion of the railroads and then be sold or occupied.
At the same time, under the Homestead Act of 1862, Americans were allowed to claim and “prove” 1-square-mile parcels of government-owned land in the West. Some of those efforts were successful and became successful ranches, but many failed and later reverted to government control. Both paths led to the chessboard of public and private land that we know today.
Enterprising hunters have tried to move from one public plot to the next where the plots meet at the corner, but this practice remains in dubious legal territory. While the legal question still lingers in many states, and may soon be tested in Wyoming, onX defines these checkerboard lands as landlocked.
However it happened, Nichols said, public lands are not usually made landlocked through intentional action on the part of landowners.
“That’s how the story happened,” he explained. “Certainly, there are landowners who might purposefully buy different pieces of land to gain exclusive access. But that’s probably less than a tenth of a percent of the landlocked land we’ve found.”
It’s not just a western problem
Historical and geographic realities have dictated that Western states contain far more public land—and landlocked public land—than their counterparts in the East. But that doesn’t mean eastern and southern states are immune to the problem.
As part of its efforts to drive a national response, onX has released landlocked reports on the South, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest. Nichols believes that anyone who enjoys the outdoors in these areas should be even more concerned about this problem than Western residents.
“They don’t have as much public land in general,” he said. “And it doesn’t just affect hunters. It’s also affecting people who just want to go out. It affects the whole experience of going out if there were more places that the public could access.”
In the South, ONX and TRCP identified 75,000 acres in Florida, 49,000 acres in North Carolina, 28,000 acres in Arkansas, and 22,000 acres in Tennessee that lack permanent public access.
In Tennessee, for example, 550 acres of national forest land is landlocked because it is surrounded by private land and falls along the western slope of Holston Mountain. Statewide, Tennessee hunters have access to only about 7,000 public acres.
The same story is true in North Carolina, where there are 150 acres of landlocked public land in the Uwharrie National Forest. This may not seem like much, but considering the fact that only about 7% of the state’s total land mass is held by the public, people who are outdoors in Tarheel State should look to take advantage of every acre.
You can find similar examples in other onX reports. In New York, there is an inaccessible 600+ acre parcel of Flat Rock State Forest teeming with game animals. In Minnesota, two parcels totaling 600 acres would give anglers access to more than 1,000 feet of shoreline on North Long Lake. In Wisconsin, a group of landlocked areas totaling 525 acres sit right next to a state wildlife area and a county forest.
These parcels are not large, especially when compared to the millions of acres in the West. But for hunters and anglers looking for a place to hunt in largely private states, 600 acres is much better than nothing.
What is being done and what can be done?
The crucial first step in tackling this problem is already underway. Public land seekers have long known about landlocked land in their areas, but without a national sense of the problem, it has been difficult to galvanize support among the general public or lawmakers.
Thanks to onX and TRCP, the true extent of this problem is clear to anyone willing to listen. Nichols believes his reporting played a role in the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, which funded access initiatives through the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).
“Since we first released the Western Federal Lands report in 2018, we have seen the impact of so many people educating themselves on this topic. Seeing the numbers put it on people’s radar and it generated a lot of energy,” Nichols said.
The LWCF allocates $27 million annually for access initiatives. As Nichols put it, providing access to landlocked land offers great “value for money.”
“Agencies and organizations working on this issue are always looking for easements and small parcels of land that would make a connection between a public road and landlocked public land,” he explained. “There are so many opportunities where public land is a few hundred feet away. Those are the ones that provide the most bang for the buck.”
Unfortunately, money is often the key to securing access to landlocked areas. Easements or entire parcels must be purchased or traded with owners, so sending a few dollars to your favorite public lands organization is an easy way to make an impact.
OnX runs a grant program, and Nichols explained that this money is often used to identify and secure easements that are at risk of disappearing. Landowners sometimes operate handshake access agreements that provide public access for free. If that owner decides to sell, that access disappears. Grant programs can identify and secure access through those parcels before they change hands.
The landlord community’s response to #projectlandlocked has been mixed, Nichols said. Some recognize the problem and want to help, while others don’t want to give up their exclusive access to landlocked public land. In either case, it is crucial that hunters and fishermen gain or maintain the support of these landowners and avoid turning the issue into a crusade against private landowners.
Neither the government, nor conservation organizations, nor hunters can force a landowner to sell a parcel or an easement. Opening up landlocked land will necessarily require buy-in from the owners, and Nichols encouraged hunters and fishermen to do whatever they can to achieve that end.
“Be overly respectful of landowners and be acutely aware of the challenges they face when there are so many more people on the landscape during hunting season. Nobody wants to look bad for another bad apple,” he said.
Just getting started
The Great American Outdoor Act and subsequent access funding was a huge victory, but there are still access initiatives that deserve the support of the hunting community.
At the federal level, the MAPLand Act could be a game changer. This piece of legislation passed the House of Representatives on March 15 with an overwhelming bipartisan majority of 414-9. As we have discussed previously, the MAPLand Act would, among other things, provide funding for public land agencies to digitize records of easements or rights of way on private lands. This data could then be shared with companies like onX to provide hunters with information about previously unknown hotspots.
“If someone doesn’t have access to information, they don’t have access to that public land,” Nichols said.
Hunters should also be aware of and support access programs in their state. The OnX reports describe the programs in each covered state that provide funding for projects to provide more access to the public.
In Wisconsin, for example, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program provides millions of dollars to enable the Department of Natural Resources to unblock Wisconsin’s state parks, fish and wildlife areas, and state natural areas. The program is set to expire this year, and new bills from Wisconsin lawmakers would allow the state to sell land gained under the program. If you live in Wisconsin, consider this a call to action.
No matter where you live, you can do three things right now to help unlock landlocked public lands in the future: 1) donate to and support a public lands nonprofit like Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, 2) contact your US representatives and express your support for the MAPLand Act, and 3) learn about and support programs in your state that acquire new public lands.
Those hunters who are concerned about overcrowding should be especially interested in opening access to landlocked public lands. It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s the most natural place to start.