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Report finds access often denied on federal lands

by Dennis Webb
for The Westerner

Posted 12/5/2013

In the two years since the Bureau of Land Management worked with partners to provide motorized access to the Willow Creek area southwest of Meeker, the area has seen heavy use.

“The trail has been used heavily by hunters the past two years — it was definitely an area the public wanted to use,” said BLM spokesman David Boyd.

It’s a reminder that not all public lands are necessarily accessible, or at least very easily accessible, to the public. That fact has been underscored by a new analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Western Priorities, which concluded that more than 4 million acres of public land in six western states, including about 540,000 acres in Colorado, can’t be reached by their owners — the public.

“We have extraordinary public lands that the public can’t even set foot on, let alone use for hunting, fishing, or camping, the activities that are synonymous with our beloved public lands,” said Center for Western Priorities’ Trevor Kincaid, in a news release about the findings.

The group’s report also points to congressional measures that could help boost access, including fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That fund comes from offshore oil and gas drilling revenue and pays for access, park expansion, conservation and other measures, but typically Congress has diverted some of its revenue for other uses.

Another measure, the Hunt Unrestricted on National Treasures (HUNT) Act, sought by U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., would require federal land management agencies to identify public lands lacking public access, develop a plan for access to those lands with significant potential for recreational use, and direct 1.5 percent of annual Land and Water Conservation Fund money for purchases of route easements and rights of way.

Heinrich also is pursuing a measure to revive the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act. It expired in 2011 and had allowed the federal government to sell lands identified as appropriate for disposal, and use the proceeds to buy high-priority lands from willing sellers for recreational access and conservation, the Center for Western Priorities says.

The chances for both of those measures may have improved when they were folded recently into the Sportsmen’s and Public Outdoor Recreation Traditions (SPORT) Act, a comprehensive measure containing bills introduced by both Democrats and Republicans. U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., is a co-sponsor.

“We definitely saw that as momentum for the HUNT Act,” said Heinrich spokeswoman Whitney Potter.


Reasons for lack of access can vary, the new report notes. Some public parcels are surrounded by private land, with no public right of way in place. A public road running through private lands may be closed off.

Checkerboard patterns of private and public land in the West, a relic of the government’s attempt to encourage railroad construction by giving the railroads alternating square-mile sections, can result in lack of access to the remaining public lands because connected corners of public land aren’t considered legal access points.

That latter phenomenon accounts for 724,000 acres of inaccessible public land in Montana, which has nearly 2 million estimated acres of inaccessible public land altogether, the most of six states studied by the Center for Western Priorities.

The checkerboard factor accounts for 87,000 acres of off-limits public lands in Colorado, the group estimates.

Besides keeping the public from enjoying hunting, fishing, hiking, wildlife-watching and other recreation on lands they own, access barriers harm the economies associated with such activities, access advocates note. Outdoor recreation is a $13.2 billion industry in terms of annual consumer spending in Colorado alone, the Center for Western Priorities points out, citing an Outdoor Industry Association estimate.

Potter said Heinrich frequently notes the economic implications in New Mexico, where that estimate is $6.1 billion, and the industry is responsible for 68,000 jobs.

“(Sen. Heinrich) sees this issue as a bipartisan issue. There are hunters and anglers on both sides of the aisle,” she said.

She said New Mexicans have a strong connection to the outdoors and a desire to pass on traditions to children and ensure they have access to special places now and in the future.

The new report says the 16,000-acre Sabinoso Wilderness in northeastern New Mexico, designated in 2009, is completely landlocked by private land and publicly inaccessible for now.

The new report also says its estimates of inaccessible land are conservative, based on assumptions that all roads listed as public are actually open. It also doesn’t include acreage with remote and highly inconvenient access — as for a large swath of the sprawling Rocky Mountain Front in Montana.

A similar situation faced the Bureau of Land Management locally in the case of the Willow Creek area off Piceance Creek Road. It never was technically inaccessible, but at 21,000 acres it was effectively so, said BLM spokesman Boyd. People could have walked in, but few went far because of the distance and difficult terrain. The only motorized roads into it were controlled by private landowners.

The BLM’s solution, working with a number of partners, was to undertake an off-highway vehicle trail project leading around private land and into the site.

Another way the BLM seeks to address access issues is through exchanges that can involve giving up isolated, scattered, hard-to-access parcels in return for manageable and accessible blocks of public land. An example of what the BLM refers to as consolidation was a land swap near Steamboat Springs in which the agency acquired more than 4,000 acres in the Emerald Mountain area in return for numerous, generally small parcels often lacking public access or having difficult access. The BLM traded about 15,000 acres in Routt County, but such trades are on a value-for-value basis, not an acre-per-acre one. The Emerald Mountain parcel was highly coveted for its recreational value.

The BLM is considering a swap that would allow billionaire Leslie Wexner to add 1,269 hard-to-access BLM acres to his ranch on the flanks of Mount Sopris near Carbondale, and the BLM also would give up about 200 acres of isolated Eagle County parcels.

The BLM would gain the 557-acre Sutey Ranch north of Carbondale, which many entities want preserved as critical big game habitat and managed for recreation. Other incentives the BLM would receive include 112 acres used to access mountain biking terrain south of Carbondale, but that faces the possibility of being closed off as an access point in the future because they’re private land.

Even BLM access to lands it administers can be challenging.

Boyd said that where lack of public access is an issue, the BLM can achieve access by means such as making it a condition of issuing a grazing permit on the land so it can administer the permit, or negotiating reciprocal access agreements where a landowner also wants a right of way across BLM land.

Most landowners within the Colorado River Valley Field Office’s jurisdiction work closely with the agency on access, he said.

“No landowner in this field office has absolutely always said no, but there are a few who don’t say yes very often,” he said.

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