Help Wanted!.. Is Access to Federal Land Mostly/Only a Rocky Mountain Issue?

fake private road

My first experiences with difficulties accessing Forest Service land occurred while hiking and camping. A road would look on the map as if it were a public road, but there would be signs that said “private road.” I never thought of it as a broader issue, but once we were invited on a rare and wonderful field trip from the Regional Office to the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest, to a district where this happens quite a bit. I wrote about this in a previous blog post here in 2011.

What I heard from folks on the AR was:

If you talk to them, you will find out some of the problems facing public lands-neighbors attempting to cut off access to the public, through
land exchanges, trespass and subsequently being granted the land through efforts of their Congresspeople, putting gates on public roads, signing public roads as private, removing Forest Service signs, and probably other approaches I have not yet heard about.

On the field trip, we heard about a couple of different issues:
Neighbors trying to keep people from legally accessing federal land through signage and illegal fencing.
Land exchanges and trespass settlements that effectively cut off public access.

But there are also issues that I heard about later from reading:
Access roads not existing in the first place.
Owners of property not agreeing that the FS access is legally OK.

Here is a quote about capacity to deal with access issues in Montana in a 2015 High Country News article here:

But the bad news is that partnerships are becoming more necessary as the Forest Service is hit with tighter budgets and staff reductions. Dennee can remember a time, as recently as a decade ago, when each of Montana’s eight national forests had a lands specialist dedicated to improving and safeguarding public access. Now only three staffers oversee access issues for the national forests and grasslands extending over the greater part of Montana and into North and South Dakota. Meanwhile, younger staffers coming up through the ranks lack the necessary expertise, he says.

“We have (many) willing landowners who want to work with us to resolve access needs,” Dennee told me, “but we can’t keep up with the demand.”

I’ve also previously written about this Montana group, the Public Lands and Waters Association, that specifically works on this issue.

Finally, I found this 2013 report “Landlocked: Measuring Public Lands Access in the West” from the Center for Western Priorities, which includes the map above.

So here’s my question: everything I’ve found so far is about the Rocky Mountain or intermountain west. Do these kinds of access issues (especially those with adjacent landowners) with National Forest land occur in California, Oregon, Washington or in the North Central, Eastern or Southern States? I am looking for personal experiences or studies, from employees, retirees or the public. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

8 Comments

  1. Hey Sharon, I am by no means an expert on land use issues but suspect they occur anytime public and private land interface. By way of anecdotal evidence David & I found much blocked private land access to the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia in terms of trailheads, and gated especially on eastside where park borders private land. We attempted a loop once on north district of SNP hiking up a trail called Little Devil’s Staircase on park land, taking a rim trail and dropping down another park trail into Big Devil’s Staircase, a canyon a few miles north. One could make a very nice loop using public roads except the last mile of Big Devil’s canyon is fenced off and No Trespassing signs indicate about a mile of forbidden pastures across a farm to get back to public roads.

  2. I think the problem is getting worse as lands change from being ranches and “friends” of the Forest Service to new owners who have lawyers check legal status of roads and trails. Even though they have been open for years, a fence or gate goes up and the FS does not fight much until it does its legal work, if there is time, and then if comes to forcing its hand or even condemnation, the FS backs down. I have seen thousands of dollars spent and bridges built to go around properties. We do not lock the gate where the property owner can drive onto the NF or BLM,

    Maybe in 3 more years there will be favorable approaches to getting ROWs for the public good.

  3. On the O&C lands on both Forest Service and BLM the roads are being gated. The public and misinformed agency people are demanding public access, but the reciprocal agreements attached to the lands and adjacent private lands specifically state that access is for forest management use only. Recreation, Joy Riding , Hunting, etc. isn’t included as “Forest Management”. That being said, it’s a two edged sword as private landowners are increasingly wanting to lease access to their lands and can’t because it’s also not for “Forest Management”. The other interesting problem coming up with lands not covered by reciprocal agreements, is many adjacent landowners now consider the USFS a liability do to the tactics used on wildfires, that a fostering unfriendly relations. Roads across private seem to be blocked, rutted up, fenced, signed, etc. and the agencies don’t have budgets or manpower to keep up.

  4. There have been problems in Oregon on access to Forest Service land where the access crossed private land – the road often looks closed due to signs, etc. but you can drive through. I have personally encoutered this on the Siskiyou NF and on the Wallowa-Whitman NF. When the private property changes hands, the new owners often gate/close the access and the process to restore access starts all over again.

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