No public access: Montana leads West in acreage of inaccessible state lands

“State trust lands, parks, and wildlife management areas often provide excellent hunting and fishing, yet 6.35 million acres of them are currently landlocked and inaccessible to the public,” said Joel Webster, TRCP Western lands director. (Jess McGlothlin/onX Maps)

States own a lot of land that is supposed to be open to the public, but a recent study found millions of acres where that’s not so. And that means state schools could be losing out on money.

More than 6 million acres of state-owned land is inaccessible in 11 Western states, according to an analysis conducted by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a coalition of sportsmen and conservation organizations, and onX, a Missoula-based GPS technology company.

Montana leads the pack with more than 1.5 million acres of landlocked state land, which is almost a quarter of the state’s land. Montana is followed by New Mexico and Arizona with 1.3 million landlocked acres each.

“State trust lands, parks, and wildlife management areas often provide excellent hunting and fishing, yet 6.35 million acres of them are currently landlocked and inaccessible to the public,” said Joel Webster, TRCP Western lands director. 

In 2018, TRCP conducted a similar survey of federal land throughout the West and found sportsmen and recreationalists were unable to access more than 9.5 million acres. Again, more than 1.5 million of that was in Montana.

A parcel of public land is “landlocked” when it’s surrounded by private land and has no public road or trail for access. Webster said an area of thousands of acres with only one road in a far corner is still considered accessible. Conversely, a landowner may allow a limited number of people to access an isolated section of public land but it’s still considered inaccessible. 

To do the analysis, GPS specialists overlaid public land information with maps of public roads to find sections of state land that had no contact with roads. But first, they had to do a lot of digging to find state or county surveys that included location data not only for sections of state land but also road right-of-ways.

“It needs to be good data going into this so you get good information coming out,” said Eric Siegfried, founder of Missoula-based onX. “In 2009, when I started onX, I was shocked that there wasn’t a landownership dataset that was complete, nationwide and GPS-accurate. So we set out to fix that.”

State land includes state parks and wildlife management areas but also school-trust lands, which the federal government gave to each state upon statehood to raise money for schools. Some states then sold the land, which is why Nevada has only 1,000 landlocked acres – it has little state land remaining to begin with. 

In Montana, ranchers, farmers, outfitters, loggers and recreationalists pay fees to use school-trust lands. Those fees have funded as much as a quarter of the state school budget, according to the Office of Public Instruction. 

So if recreationalists and sportsmen can’t access millions of acres, state schools are potentially losing some money.

When the federal and state numbers are totaled, Montana has more than 3 million acres of land that the public should have access to, but doesn’t.

But Webster has some ideas to improve public access, some of which come from Montana.

Even with its millions of inaccessible acres, Montana is doing a good job of promoting its lands for recreation, as is Washington, Webster said.

He pointed to the fact that Montana created the position of public access specialist with the intent of finding ways to improve access to both state and public land through land acquisition and collaboration with landowners. 

The Unlocking Public Lands program provides tax incentives for landowners to allow the public to cross their land to get to public land. Also, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks puts $2 out of the price of every conservation and general license toward school-trust lands.

That amounts to about $1.2 million each year coming from recreation.

“As a result, Montana does a very good job of advertising the fact that 5.2 million areas are open and accessible to the public,” Webster said. “These (programs) aren’t perfect, but they’re trying, the Legislature is making a real effort to open these lands. This is something that others could look at to address the problems in their states as well.”

Meanwhile, Washington offers a $30 annual pass or charges $10 a day to allow citizens to use state lands. 

Webster also praised state walk-in access programs, such as Montana’s Block Management Program, which opens private land that can then provide access to public land. 

Finally, Webster encouraged Congress to fully funding of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. If Congress ever allocates the full $900 million annually out of royalties from offshore oil drilling, that money could help states buy parcels of private land that provide that critical access to millions of acres of public land.

“Forty percent of those dollars must be used to support state and local projects,” Webster said. “This is a huge opportunity for these states to be taking existing resources to open these lands to the public.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.