Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Have you been accessing your land?

Everyone who reads this article is a land owner. What? You didn't think you were? Well technically you are right, you don't hold any title, but you are entitled to access and use millions of acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Forest Service land. That's not a misprint, there are millions of acres open to the public and are collectively called "public land." Take a look at this map and chart that shows the acreage of public land in the western United States alone.

I'm sure that most people think of public land in terms of the National Park System. Places where tourists visit to car camp and enjoy some very beautiful sights while not completely "roughing it." Meanwhile the BLM and Forest Service lands are relatively underused by the greater general public in part because there are no "big attractions" or few modern utilities.

While the whole population of the United States may be under-utilizing public land, there are a lot of rural people who use public land. Many ranchers supplement their limited property ownership by grazing their cattle and sheep on public land. The government occasionally contracts with timber companies to harvest trees for some supplemental income for the Agriculture and Interior departments and create rural jobs. Many ordinary rural residents can go onto public land to cut firewood or hunt for food. But even with these and many other uses, a lot of the public land maintained by BLM and the Forest Service go unused.

Part of the problem is access to the land. Usually the only way to access a public land parcel is to drive there on a county or Forest Service road. Some of these roads are paved and can be accessed by everyday cars, but many are dirt roads that can only be traversed by four wheel drive vehicles. If you don't have a 4X4, well you're just out of luck.

Another problem is parcels that are completely surrounded by private property owned by people who do not allow the public to cross to access the public land. Take a look at this map of the area near where I personally hunt. All the green areas to the north and east on the map is National Forest land managed by the Forest Service, and in theory open to everyone. But some of the smaller green squares (like those near Dinsmores and Janes Place) have no roads leading into them. These parcels are cut off from the general public by private owners.

This is illustrated by a series of articles published by Bugle magazine entitled "This Land is Your Land" (Volume 28, Issue 6, Nov/Dec 2011). One story, "Opening the Gate to Devil's Canyon," outlines how a private land owner put up a gate on the only access road preventing the public from accessing the 20,000 acre Little Mountain Wilderness in Wyoming. Public access advocates lost their battle for access in a federal court because the road was private with no easement. The only way the gate was opened was the eventual purchase of the private land by the BLM. In another story, a hunter was tired of being thwarted by a private landowner. So he and his buddies hired out a helicopter to access public land to go elk hunting. That's not an option for most public land users.

Access can become a major legal issue. The land where I hunt has five access easements attached to the property. My cousin owns the property, and if he were to cut any easement off... hello lawsuit. This legal complexity applies to public lands as well. Because it can be such a hassle to access some public land, there are many areas that will receive few users. If we don't use these lands, what is the point of keeping them public?

But there are still large swaths of territory that is public and accessible. These lands are very vital to many rural communities and are beautiful in their own right. So if I may suggest, maybe hold off on making another trip to Yosemite this summer and visit some public lands like King's Range or the Marble Mountains. After all, you own them.


Courtney Taylor said...

This is very interesting. I had previously only thought about how private landowners can block key wildlife corridors, not how they can block access to public lands. I know there are many programs in California that purchase private lands that fragment wildlife corridors, called "Islands of Habitat," to make the corridors more contiguous. The Wildlife Conservation Board has a program that provides tax incentives for landowners that donate land considered "Islands of Habitat."

I'm curious if there are any programs in California that are using the wildlife corridor model for public land access. Unfortunately, until enough people make noise about wanting access to the land, this may not be a priority for the state.

Jason said...

I am a big fan of BLM land and try and get out to enjoy them as my time allows. Due to the lack of general knowledge of public lands, they have an entirely different feel than many state and federal parks. I have spent days on BLM land camping, hiking, and hunting without seeing a single sign of another human. Where as you visit Yosemite and you often feel like your at Disneyland as you make the hike to a popular waterfall.

Living in the Bay Area, BLM lands are few, even fewer if you want access to them. The majority are completely surrounded by private property or require several miles of off-road hiking/driving to get to. These areas hardly feel like "public" land. I feel some sort of easement would be beneficial to the rest of us but hate the idea of the government telling the private landowner that he has to allow passage and give up his property rights.