Monday, December 02, 2013

Access often denied on our public lands

...It’s a reminder that not all public lands are necessarily accessible, or at least very easily accessible, to the public. That fact has been underscored by a new analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Western Priorities, which concluded that more than 4 million acres of public land in six western states, including about 540,000 acres in Colorado, can’t be reached by their owners — the public.

“We have extraordinary public lands that the public can’t even set foot on, let alone use for hunting, fishing, or camping, the activities that are synonymous with our beloved public lands,” said Center for Western Priorities’ Trevor Kincaid, in a news release about the findings.

The group’s report also points to congressional measures that could help boost access, including fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund. That fund comes from offshore oil and gas drilling revenue and pays for access, park expansion, conservation and other measures, but typically Congress has diverted some of its revenue for other uses.

Another measure, the Hunt Unrestricted on National Treasures (HUNT) Act, sought by U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., would require federal land management agencies to identify public lands lacking public access, develop a plan for access to those lands with significant potential for recreational use, and direct 1.5 percent of annual Land and Water Conservation Fund money for purchases of route easements and rights of way.

Heinrich also is pursuing a measure to revive the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act. It expired in 2011 and had allowed the federal government to sell lands identified as appropriate for disposal, and use the proceeds to buy high-priority lands from willing sellers for recreational access and conservation, the Center for Western Priorities says.

The chances for both of those measures may have improved when they were folded recently into the Sportsmen’s and Public Outdoor Recreation Traditions (SPORT) Act, a comprehensive measure containing bills introduced by both Democrats and Republicans. U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., is a co-sponsor. “We definitely saw that as momentum for the HUNT Act,” said Heinrich spokeswoman Whitney Potter.

Reasons for lack of access can vary, the new report notes. Some public parcels are surrounded by private land, with no public right of way in place. A public road running through private lands may be closed off.

Checkerboard patterns of private and public land in the West, a relic of the government’s attempt to encourage railroad construction by giving the railroads alternating square-mile sections, can result in lack of access to the remaining public lands because connected corners of public land aren’t considered legal access points.

That latter phenomenon accounts for 724,000 acres of inaccessible public land in Montana, which has nearly 2 million estimated acres of inaccessible public land altogether, the most of six states studied by the Center for Western Priorities.

The new report says the 16,000-acre Sabinoso Wilderness in northeastern New Mexico, designated in 2009, is completely landlocked by private land and publicly inaccessible for now.

Heinrich is correct in trying to renew  the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act.  Why?  BLM has identified millions of acres for disposal, but has sold very little of it.  Why?  Because there's nothing in it for them.  Revenues from sales go to the Treasury.  But under the expired FLTFA, 96% of the proceeds are available to the agencies for land acquisition.  If it benefits the general public, BLM won't act; if it benefits the feds, they will.

But in reality, its not needed, at least in the short run.  BLM has plenty of land identified for disposal which they could exchange with private, state or other owners to obtain access.  Almost a million acres in NM alone could be used for access issues, inholdings and to acquire environmentally sensitive lands.  They certainly don't need L&WCF money until they have exhausted their supply of lands identified for disposal.  And remember, the only authority BLM has to condemn land is for public access, whereas an exchange is by definition with a willing landowner.

You can read the mentioned report here.

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