Land ownership lines wind drunkenly in a tangle of squares, rectangles, and zig-zags in central Wyoming. The area’s recreationists have learned to live with “no trespassing” signs. They know red and blue placards on the North Platte River signify where anglers and boaters can legally cross land. They pine over thousands of acres of untouchable public land surrounded by uncrossable private property.
But soon Wyoming residents will have almost nine more miles of North Platte River access and more than 75,000 additional acres of accessible public land after the Bureau of Land Management announced its largest land purchase in the state’s history. The chunk of land, which includes the purchase of more than 35,000 acres of a private ranch adjacent to 40,000 acres of previously inaccessible BLM and state land, sits just southwest of Casper, Wyoming, in the center of the state. The property is a rolling mix of bluffs and coulees, sagebrush flats and grasslands.
“This isn’t a little place,” says Jeff Muratore, a longtime central Wyoming resident and avid hunter of the land that will soon be opened. “It’s big, and it’s full of all kinds of terrain from the lowlands near the river to country that elk would roam in.”
Wyoming lawmakers talk openly about transferring federal lands to the state. Public land owned by the state is limited by law, which means if the state acquires more land it must then sell an equal number of acres. It’s not always a friendly place for public land, despite many people flocking here for recreation. So if the BLM can open 75,000 acres in Wyoming, then maybe it can happen anywhere. Perhaps slowly picking up chunks of land and signing easement deals isn’t just a dream. Maybe the painstaking process of working with thousands of private landowners over more than a dozen states is a solution to opening millions of acres of landlocked public land across the West.
“The priority now is to get more of them so we can establish a record of success,” says John Gale, Conservation Director for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA).
In 2018, mapping company onX and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership released a joint study showing that more than 9.5 million acres of federal land in 13 western states are permanently inaccessible to the general public. Anyone who has looked at land ownership maps to find a spot to hunt, fish, camp, or hike has seen those chunks of green or yellow with no discernible access point. But the sheer volume sent shockwaves through the outdoor community, and it’s even more alarming now, during a time of unprecedented crowding.
“We’re not making any more land, and our population is increasing,” says BLM director Tracy Stone-Manning. “But we do have the ability to open up land and open up access to the growing population.”
Those transactions cost a lot of money, though, sometimes tens of millions of dollars. And private landowners ready to sell don’t want to wait a decade for Congress to decide to act.
So outdoor groups pushed for full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which finally passed in 2019 as part of the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, also known as the Great American Outdoors Act. The same legislation included a wonky directive to federal land management agencies: identify parcels larger than 640 acres and blocked or heavily restrict to the public that could be opened for improved hunting, fishing, and other recreational access.
The BLM did as it was told. In 2020, BLM officials asked people to nominate applicable parcels. Thousands of responses came in, and the agency narrowed it down to about 700 possibilities. The nomination process is open again.
Seven million more people recreated outside in 2020 than they did the previous year, a record high for outdoor participation on a finite amount of land. So more open land seems like a universal positive, right?
Right now, only 250 law enforcement officers patrol 240 million acres of land.
Maybe, but with caution, says Yufna Soldier Wolf, a tribal advocate for the Indigenous Land Alliance of Wyoming. Lands blocked to the public are, in some ways, also protected from the public. All of the public land we call ours was tribal ancestral land, largely stolen outright or through broken treaties. The recently purchased Wyoming land was used by the Northern Arapaho, Cheyenne, Lakota, Dakota, and other High Plains Tribes.
“When you talk about management of the land, a part of that is the consultation process. What if you run into human remains? What if someone wants to put a trail in here? What if they want to set up an ORV trail?” says Soldier Wolf.
On the other hand, lands blocked from the public are also blocked from tribes, says Jesse Deubel, New Mexico Wildlife Federation’s executive director.
The state of New Mexico will soon open more than 54,000 acres to the public through the purchase of the L Bar Ranch west of Albuquerque. The Pueblos of Acoma, Laguna, Zuni, and Hopi Tribes all supported the land deal because it would open up access to more than 1,000 important archeological sites that had been blocked.
Stone-Manning understands concerns about Indigenous sites and, more broadly, issues of using public land responsibly. The BLM went through the federal environmental and cultural resources review process for the Wyoming purchase as it does all land deals. And the agency works with tribes to identify and protect important areas.
The BLM also needs more resources, she says, including funding for more education and enforcement. Right now, only 250 law enforcement officers patrol 245 million acres of land.
“[If we say] we don’t want to allow people in there because people will wreck it, then that is an admission of failure,” Stone-Manning says. “And we can’t accept that failure.”
While the Wyoming deal had been in the works long before the Dingell Act, it shows the power of agreements between a willing buyer and seller, Stone-Manning says.
Groups like BHA are interested in addressing other challenges presented by gridlocked land. The group raised more than $70,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to fund the legal expenses of four Missouri hunters accused of trespassing in Wyoming. The hunters “corner crossed,” which means they stepped (using a ladder) from one parcel of public land to another at a place where four pieces of land meet. The four were found not guilty, but corner crossing remains a legal gray area in most of the West, and one BHA and other groups hope will be settled in favor of public land users.
BHA also recognizes the risk of antagonizing private landowners by forcing them to allow corner crossing, Gale says. Conservatives in red states like Wyoming tend to push back against the federal government, especially when it comes to creating more public land. It’s why successful deals using LWCF money to purchase land from private owners who want to sell (like the one in Wyoming) feel like a bright spot in a West filled with more people and less trust.
“It is a finite number of lands that are landlocked,” Stone-Manning says, “and if we keep chipping away at it, we will eventually solve the problem.”