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Vexing problem of public access

Bernie Kuntz, For The Sun

An organization based in Denver and called the Center for Western Priorities just released a report that has many Montanans buzzing.

It reveals that about two million acres of federal land are inaccessible to the public because the land is blocked off by private landowners who do not allow access. (The inaccessible acreage in Wyoming is said to be 750,000 acres. In Colorado and New Mexico the figure is 540,000 acres for each state. Some 50 million acres of federal land nationwide is said to be inaccessible to the public.)

This is old news for most of us hunters who have been dealing with this travesty of justice for the last 40 or 50 years. The only news is that the problem has gotten worse with time. For example, a court ruled in 2011 that a ranch on Bullwhacker Road in the Missouri River Breaks, had a right to close public access by gating a road that lead through the ranch and to public land. This ruling essentially removed 50,000 acres of BLM land from public access. (When I hunted mule deer just west of there in the late 1980s the road was still open to the public.)

Much of the problem comes from big landowners creating their own “hunting preserves” by blocking off access to parcels of public land, and posting their own private lands. Guided mule deer hunts in Montana cost up to $5,000, elk hunts begin at $5,000 and can cost as much as $12,000 or $15,000. So you can see that the financial incentive is there for some to block access to the general public.

Another reality is that dozens of wealthy out-of-staters have moved in to western states over the last few decades, and most of them exclude the public. If you examine real estate ads for western ranches, some will tout the fact that the private land borders public land (“access to 10,000 acres of Forest Service land.”) What the ad does not say is that if you buy the ranch, you can have all that public land for your own enjoyment, because unless someone flies in on a helicopter, it is inaccessible to the public.

Another contributing problem is the Pacific Railroad Act of 1864, which as an incentive for railroads to build lines, gave railroads every other section of land for about 20 miles on either side of the tracks. Two sections of each 36-section township were eventually given to the respective state. Some of these lands have been consolidated, sold off, or otherwise traded, but the checkerboard pattern still is a nightmare for land managers, whether they are state or federal.

One time years ago I happened to be in a vehicle with a couple guys from the BLM office in Billings, and being a cantankerous sort, I said something to this effect: “If you guys would get off your federal rumps and file condemnation proceedings against these ranches that block public access, we’d all be lots better off.”

One of the BLM guys assured me that if they tried that, they’d be receiving a call from both U.S. Senators and the U.S. Representative before the end of the work day. I had to admit I hadn’t thought of that!

There have been a few half-hearted efforts over the years by federal agencies in making land trades to grant the public more access. However, those efforts have been more than offset by the gate closures during the last 25 or 30 years.

To its credit, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission last month approved draft rules for granting landowners a $500 state-tax break if they allow the public to cross their land to reach state-trust land. Landowners who provide access to multiple sections of state land could get up to $2,000 in state tax breaks. The commissioners are taking public comment on the proposal at this time. This, of course, only addresses state land sections in Montana, but with some 2,350 sections said to be inaccessible, it involves a lot of land.

As it is, I don’t see a lot being done by the U.S. Forest Service or the BLM, and certainly nothing by the U.S. Congress, to remedy this situation. Paradoxically, by law private, landowners must be granted access across public lands but the reverse is not true! Is that crazy or what?

Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been

an Outdoors columnist for the Sun since 1974