9.52 million acres of public lands are entirely inaccessible to Americans

9.52 million acres of public lands are entirely inaccessible to Americans
© Getty Images

Across the United States, 640 million acres of public lands managed by federal agencies such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management offer unparalleled opportunities for a wide variety of outdoor activities. These areas at once serve as an invaluable reservoir of high-quality wildlife habitat and clean water, a tremendous engine of economic growth, and the bedrock of our nation’s outdoor traditions.

Among their most celebrated attributes, however, is that our public lands are open and available to all Americans for activities like hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, and other outdoor pursuits.

Well, to be precise, most are.


More than 9.52 million acres of America’s public lands in 13 Western states — an area greater than the size of New Hampshire and Connecticut combined — are entirely inaccessible to the public because they are surrounded by private lands. Despite the fact that the American people own these lands and that they are managed by public agencies, there are no permanent, legal means of reaching them.  

This perplexing situation resulted from the process of territorial expansion in the United States. Railroad land grants, failed homesteads, and the piecemeal nature of Western land claims produced pockets of public land scattered among private holdings, sometimes leading to instances in which they were effectively locked off from their rightful owners: the American people.

Today, some of these public land parcels sprawl nearly 35 square-miles, and in parts of some states more than 20 percent of all federally managed lands sit landlocked. More than 3 million acres of public lands in Wyoming alone have no guaranteed public access.

Fortunately, in recent years, federal lawmakers have recognized this problem. In 2012, Congress directed that an annual portion of the money available from the Land and Water Conservation Fund — a budget-neutral program that sets aside federal revenues from offshore drilling to benefit outdoor recreation — be used to increase access to existing public lands where it was limited or nonexistent. Since that time, federal land management agencies and private land trusts have been working cooperatively with willing landowners to open up inaccessible parcels across the country. Great examples of newly or soon-to-be secured public access can be found in the John Day River basin of Oregon, in the John Long Mountains of Montana, and on Colorado’s Western Slope.

As expanded public access has only recently become a priority for LWCF-funding, much of this important work still remains yet to be done. In places like the Miles City BLM Field Office of eastern Montana, for example, nearly 1 million acres of federally managed public lands sit entirely inaccessible to the public. Despite the enormity of the problem in this part of the state, not a single LWCF-funded project has created new public access there.


The situation in places like Miles City should not be seen as a failure, but rather as a sign that this important access work is now just beginning. Unfortunately, however, Congress failed to pass legislation reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which would have allowed this work to continue, and the program expired on Sept. 30. With it disappeared $900 million in potential annual funding, leaving little hope of success for projects aimed at securing and expanding public access to our public lands.

In an encouraging development, recent movement in Congress suggests that the issue will be addressed before too long. On Sep. 13, the House Natural Resources Committee passed HR 502, a well-reasoned bill to reauthorize LWCF that includes up to $27 million annually (or up to 3 percent overall) for access projects. And recently, following the program’s expiration, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed a bipartisan bill, S. 569, that would reauthorize and fully fund LWCF. These are positive steps, no doubt, but much more is required of both the House and Senate before this vital program can be brought back to life.

While recognizing that our lawmakers face competing demands on their time, American sportsmen and women are depending on our elected officials to permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund with full, dedicated annual funding. For the benefit of all public land users, we urge Congress to get the job done.

Eric Siegfried is the founder of onX, a mobile GPS mapping technology. Whit Fosburgh is the president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a national conservation organization working to guarantee all Americans a quality place to hunt and fish. Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and onX recently published a comprehensive study of access to public lands.