In the West, Inaccessible Public Land Tantalizes Sportsmen

No sportsman on this continent has a monopoly on frustration when it comes to access. We all wish we had … Continued

No sportsman on this continent has a monopoly on frustration when it comes to access. We all wish we had more, whether we’re Eastern trout anglers, Southeastern turkey hunters, Rocky Mountain elk bums, or Canadian hikers.

But Westerners’ access frustrations are born of tantalizing proximity to public land, much of which is inaccessible. The frustrations are detailed in a spot-on piece in last weekend’s Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

About 5 percent of my home state of Montana is owned by the state, and managed by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which manages thousands of 640-acre sections spread from border to border. These lands are a the legacy of our homesteading era a century ago, when two sections—typically 16 and 36—in each township were set aside as rural school sites and funding engines for local education. The idea was that grazing or logging from the sections would fund schools in each township, reducing the property-tax burden on homesteaders.

It remains a great idea. Revenue from the state sections, which are typically leased to neighboring landowners for grazing, fund schools across the state, and sections that are logged or mined also provide school revenue.

The problem is, only a fraction of state land is publically accessible by an adjacent public road or waterway. Most of these school sections, which appear as blue squares on land-ownership maps, are landlocked. Landowners who lease state sections typically consider them part of their private-land holding, and don’t have much incentive to allow hunters, anglers, or hikers to get to them.

As the newspaper article details, Montanans who are locked out of those school sections are increasingly seeing red as they look at all those tantalizingly close, but entirely inaccessible, squares of blue.