The Western United States are known for their public lands. East of Colorado, the federal government owns less than 5 percent of all land, but in states like Idaho, the public has access to federally managed acreage that covers nearly half the region.
At least, the public is supposed to have access to that land. According to a report completed in late 2018, millions of acres of public lands across the West are inaccessible, and the solution to that problem isn’t quite clear.
The study, believed to be the most comprehensive analysis of public land access to date, is the result of a partnership between environmental advocacy group the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and onX, a technology company that creates maps for hunters and anglers.
Geographic information system experts with onX looked at data on public lands and roads to determine how many parcels of federal land are “landlocked” by surrounding private land — seemingly without public roads, private easements or other means of access. The team found 9.52 million acres of inaccessible land across the West.
In Idaho, the study found 208,000 acres of publicly owned land that’s inaccessible, less than 1 percent of the state’s roughly 34.5 million acres of public lands.
How Idahoans got locked out of land
Idaho’s access issues are nowhere near the worst in the West, the report shows. Wyoming takes that title, with more than 3 million acres of public-owned land inaccessible. Nevada was close behind with more than 2 million acres blocked off, and Montana trailed with 1.5 million landlocked acres.
But Lisa Nichols, GIS supervisor of data acquisition at onX, said Idaho’s data is still cause for concern.
“Those (208,000 acres) are significant for people looking for outdoor recreation access,” she said.
It’s not clear why Idaho’s neighboring states have so many more landlocked parcels than the Gem State, though a 2013 article in the Billings Gazette attributed part of the issue in Montana to a rise in the number of corporations and out-of-state landowners purchasing ranches and homesteads.
There are 27 parcels of inaccessible public land in Idaho that are larger than 1,000 acres, according to Nichols. Idaho’s inaccessible lands are strewn across the state, and the bulk belongs to the BLM — 194,000 acres. The largest inaccessible public parcel in Idaho is larger than 6,000 acres, according to the report, though a full map of landlocked Idaho parcels wasn’t publicly available.
The report pointed to one inaccessible, 1,775-acre tract of the Boise National Forest north of Mountain Home near Wood Creek Mountain.
“(The land) lies within big game management unit 44, yet sits inaccessible to public hunting,” the report said.
Brian Brooks, director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, said his organization has been searching for solutions to the access problem for some time. Last month, lawmakers killed an IWF bill that would’ve given Idahoans a civil litigation option when public lands are illegally blocked.
“(There are) a lot of public lands that Idahoans pay for that they don’t have access to,” Brooks said. “I think you’d be hard pressed to find a hunter or angler who hasn’t seen landlocked public land on a map and been like, ‘Ugh.’ ”
Brooks said some of the access issues have been around for decades, like the checkerboard pattern created in the 1860s when the government divided up land as an incentive to build railroads out west. Though the corners of these parcels touch, “corner crossing,” or hopping from public parcel to public parcel, is technically illegal, Brooks said.
“You can see state land or public land a stone’s throw away ... and it’s like a 20-foot strip of private property to get to that public land,” he said. “You can stick your hand over and touch it, but you’re trespassing when you do that.”
With Idaho’s strict trespassing laws, Brooks said, many sportsmen are reluctant to take their chances.
Public land data is difficult to come by
For onX’s GIS experts, like Nichols, digging into land access data meant cobbling together information from fractured sources.
“Obviously there are a lot of caveats (to the data) because there’s no single source for public vs. private roads,” Nichols said.
There’s also no consistency when it comes to property records and other land ownership information, she said. In some cases, federal agencies like the BLM or Forest Service may not even be aware of lands that are their responsibility.
“It’s hard for us to actually know the extent of the problem and hard for agencies to know what’s in their jurisdiction,” Nichols said.
It’s possible there are even more inaccessible lands than the report found — in some cases, public roads ran near a parcel without traversing it. Other times, there were dated or incomplete records on easements or access agreements. In those events, onX researchers erred on the side of caution and deemed the parcels accessible.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership was tasked with double-checking GIS results with federal agencies, but only when it came to landlocked parcels greater than 1,000 acres, according to TRCP communications manager Randall Williams.
“One of our big takeaways from this project ... is the need for standardization,” Williams said. “If you’re interested in finding out whether you can cross a road ... it requires going into a basement and digging around to find those records.
“We’d like to see these records digitized and made available not just to the public, but to these (federal) agencies,” he said.
Working with private landowners, lawmakers
Williams said standardized records would give public lands advocates a starting point to strategize for access. Already Idaho agencies like the Idaho Department of Fish and Game are interested in improving access, Williams said, but there often isn’t enough funding to pursue those efforts.
Currently, Fish and Game negotiates with private landowners through its “Access Yes!” program, which offers compensation to landowners who allow sportsmen to hunt and fish on their land. According to the agency’s website, Access Yes! has connected sportsmen to nearly 550,000 acres of public land, as well as 370,000 acres of private land.
“One of the things we wanted to highlight was the areas where the public currently enjoys access simply because of the goodwill of the landowners,” Williams said. “A lot of landowners are great at allowing access, but that’s not guaranteed for future generations.”
TRCP and onX hope to use the report to spur legislative action. And though Brooks faced disappointment last month when lawmakers shut down his organization’s bill, he said there’s still a lot of support in Idaho’s Legislature for land access in some form.
“Access is a spectrum,” Brooks said. “The one thing we all agree on is we need some kind of gateway of access.”