Roger Phillips: Public lands not public without access

More emphasis should be put on opening blocked areas.

December 5, 2013 

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Idaho sometimes seems as though it has endless public lands, but a recent report found that more than 163,000 acres, or about 254 square miles of it, is blocked by private lands.

ROGER PHILLIPS — rphillips@idahostatesman.com

If you live in Idaho and play outdoors, chances are good you're doing it on public land. They are critical to our quality of life. Outdoor recreation adds billions to the state's economy and is a magnet for newcomers.

Public lands are a precious resource, and as more people go outdoors, those public lands get more pressure. We could always use more, but buying private land creates problems of its own.

What if we could get more public lands without doing that? It's possible by getting access to public lands that are currently blocked by private lands.

According to a recent report by the Center for Western Priorities, Idaho has 163,314 acres of inaccessible public lands.

So just who's making this claim?

Center for Western Priorities describes itself as a "nonpartisan engagement center that serves as a source of accurate information, promotes responsible policies and practices, and ensures accountability at all levels to protect land, water, and communities in the American West."

By using GIS mapping software, Western Priorities identified more than 4 million inaccessible public acres in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.

Lands were identified as inaccessible if they did not come into contact with a public road and did not touch an adjacent parcel of accessible public land.

It further classified those landlocked into two categories: public land inaccessible because the public cannot cross checkerboard corners, and public land fully surrounded by private lands.

Checkerboards are common in North Idaho, where the federal government granted railroad companies every other section in exchange for developing rail lines.

The public land between those sections is often blocked because there's no access at the corners.

Parcels of public lands blocked by checkerboards accounted for about 43,000 acres, according to Western Priorities, which leaves about 120,000 acres of public land completely surrounded by private lands.

That doesn't necessarily mean we don't currently have access to those parcels. Many private landowners allow people to cross their land, but it's a safe assumption many are blocked, and the others are at risk of being blocked in the future.

In a state where private property rights are sacred, it always struck me as odd that access to public lands is less so. It seems like they ought to be at least equal.

But that's beside the point. The bigger question is how the public can gain, or keep, access to those public lands.

Idaho Fish and Game has had some success through its Access Yes program, which pays landowners for hunting and fishing access, but that's typically on a year-to-year basis.

It would be great to see more done at the state level, but considering our legislators seem more interested in a futile attempt to take over federal lands than getting the public more access, I am not optimistic.

I'm not saying it's impossible that the feds will turn over their land to the state, but it seems about as likely as the 22nd Amendment being repealed and Idaho voters electing President Obama for a third term.

But that's another issue. This one hits closer to home because we probably all know of a few prime parcels of public land stuck behind no-trespassing signs.

It's frustrating when the public loses out on places to hunt, fish, hike, explore or whatever else a person wants to do.

There have been some attempts to solve it.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) reintroduced a bill in September that directs federal agencies to inventory all public lands larger than 640 acres and work with neighboring landowners to purchase parcels that would provide access.

I would love to see Idaho's congressional delegation get behind that. It's been pretty forward looking when it comes to public lands issues, and also shown a willingness to work with Democrats to solve them.

I would also like to see respected nonprofits and conservation organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Idaho Conservation League use their leadership and clout to gain more public access to those places.

If there was a pot of money available, maybe some permanent easements could be secured. It's something I think a good cross-section of folks, from huckleberry pickers to elk hunters, could get behind and probably donate some money toward.

I'm sure there are a lot of other options, and it would be great to see some leadership from within or outside the government.

Though the problem isn't unique to Idaho, we can come up with a unique solution to fix it.

Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoorsStatesman outdoor writers Pete Zimowsky and Roger Phillips alternate columns on Thursday. Look for Zimo next week.

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