An estimated 541,000 acres in Colorado, including 456 acres in Pitkin County, are public lands in name only — the public is shut out from lack of access, according to a new report.
The Denver-based Center for Western Priorities found that nearly 4 million acres of public lands in six Western states are off-limits because of historical land-ownership patterns, inadequate entry points or other impediments.
The report, “Landlocked: Measuring Public Land Access in the West,” found that most of the inaccessible acres are entirely landlocked by private property or access is blocked when a road or trail crosses a corner of private land.
“Our analysis here is, as far as we can tell, the first time it’s ever been done,” said Trevor Kincaid, a staff member at the Center for Western Priorities and an author of the study.
The center decided to undertake the study when there was a public uproar over lack of access to some public lands during the federal government shutdown earlier this year. People were upset over closure of national parks and the inability to visit national monuments in Washington, D.C. In the Aspen area, the Maroon Bells Recreation Area was closed to vehicles, and several campgrounds in national forests closed early.
“Another thing we learned from the shutdown is people love their public lands,” Kincaid said.
The center staff got curious about how much land is permanently inaccessible, not just off-limits because of inconvenience.
“We knew that there was land that was blocked off from the public,” Kincaid said.
The study showed there are 454,000 acres of public land completely surrounded by private lands in Colorado and another 87,000 acres inaccessible because the public cannot cut corners.
Idaho and Utah had the lowest amount of “landlocked” areas; Montana and Wyoming had the most. Colorado and New Mexico fell in the middle.
Montana has 1,995,000 acres of inaccessible public lands, or about half of the six-state total. Wyoming has 758,000 inaccessible acres.
New Mexico is almost identical to Colorado with 542,000 acres.
Utah has 197,000 inaccessible acres, while Idaho has 163,000, the study said.
The study didn’t consider public lands that are difficult to access because of rugged four-wheel-drive roads as inaccessible. In some cases, the best access is via a well-maintained road that is closed where it crosses private property, but secondary access is provided over rougher roads. Those lands aren’t considered inaccessible by the study, even though use might be diminished by lack of easy access.
“There’s definitely more land out there that is inaccessible,” Kincaid said. “This is a conservative estimate.”
For example, the study assumed that roads marked as public are indeed open. That doesn’t factor in illegal closures when ownership is in dispute.
“Private landowners have been known to block access to public land by ‘posting’ public lands as private,” the study said.
The report was released during Thanksgiving week while the mapmaker was on vacation, so no additional information was immediately available on the 456 acres of inaccessible property in Pitkin County, Kincaid said.
The study contends that inaccessibility to public lands hurts the economies of Western counties, ones that are often rural.
“These shuttered public lands dramatically reduce opportunities for outdoor recreation, such as hiking, hunting, fishing and horseback riding, and stymie the United States’ burgeoning $646 billion outdoor recreation economy,” the study said.
The Center for Western Priorities wants Congress to take action to secure access to property that is currently inaccessible. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is an existing tool to provide access, but it is chronically underfunded, the study said. In addition, Congress could act on the HUNT Act introduced by Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., to expand and improve access into public lands, the study said. It noted that past efforts to improve access have received bipartisan support from Western legislators.
“Another thing we learned from the shutdown is people love their public lands.”
Trevor Kincain, Center for Western Priorities