In what has become an all-too-common occurrence, a new “No Trespassing” sign recently greeted me at the trailhead I’ve used for years to access public lands. The private land bordering the road had been sold and the thousands of acres of public land beyond are now more difficult to reach.
Wyoming is changing. While a handshake agreement or informal permission could once reliably secure access to public land through undeveloped private land, those types of arrangements are becoming a thing of the past. More ranches and rural properties are changing hands, and many of the new landowners immediately put up no trespassing signs or lease out their land to outfitters. It’s hard to blame them since it’s their private property rights, but it also doesn’t mean we should sit by and do nothing about it.
In order to better understand this issue, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership partnered with the digital mapping company onX to calculate the amount of landlocked public land across the West. Their study revealed that Wyoming has more than 3 million acres of federal public lands without guaranteed public access, more than any other Western state. These are isolated parcels of public land enclosed or “landlocked” by private holdings through which no legal public road or trail passes. Even though we — the American people — own these lands and they are managed by public agencies, there are no permanent, legal means of reaching them.
When private-land permission was easily acquired, this was not a serious obstacle. But as land ownership patterns have shifted — and as sportsmen more frequently encounter no trespassing signs and gated roads — inaccessible public lands now present a growing barrier to hunting, fishing and other recreational pursuits.
One solution is the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal program that uses revenue from offshore oil and gas to fund outdoor recreation projects. Some Wyoming projects include improved fishing and public land access, a renovation of the Meeteetse rodeo grounds and a new baseball field and playground in Moorcroft. Congress recently permanently authorized the fund but now they need to adequately fund it and I encourage our delegation to support the bipartisan bill that would do just that.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department also has the Access Yes program that pays private landowners for hunting and fishing access. This is a great program but access is typically limited to the fall, and these agreements are neither permanent nor meant to provide access to landlocked public land.
This past session of the Wyoming Legislature a bill was debated to study this issue and develop solutions that could be a win-win for both private landowners and the public. Sadly, this bill died in the House Agriculture Committee by one vote. Our public lands and wildlife are woven into our identity in Wyoming and make our state a sportsmen’s paradise. I hope our elected leaders will take this issue seriously in the future and consider new ways to unlock our public lands without infringing on private property rights.