Land access in Montana and beyond

Hey guys,

Just thought I’d plug a piece I wrote for the Montana Free Press on changes in land access in Montana. It’s somewhat hunting focused, because of the way hunting has an active shadow market for land access, but if you are keyed in to access issues, you will find implications for non-consumptive access issues.

I’m curious how you think some of this may affect you? As access turns into a commodity, will that affect your field work? Public land access? Fishing? Does anything about this excite you as No Trespassing might turn into pay-to-play? Do you think private access models will incentivize conservation activity?



I would never describe any of my feeling regarding the U.S. model of privatization of nature as “excitement”. In my country, we have a law that says that I can enter any forest, except for strictly protected areas, no matter who is the owner - and we are quite a populated central European country. In the more remote nordics, it goes so far that I can even camp in the forest, no matter what the owner says, if it’s not right next to a house. Meanwhile in the U.S. you have vast tracts of private land … it just doesn’t make any sense to me, why do we assign ownership to nature. It’s not like the owners created the nature - at some point, somebody came there, so it was free (or, worse, inhabited by people who they did not consider human enough to have any rights) and claimed it.


@taitsougstad I can only speak for my country (South Africa).

Land ownership and ease/restriction of access in South Africa has had a long, bloody, and complicated history. Between tribal wars and European colonisation (and the dispossession engendered by both), the land has changed hands many times. Perhaps there was a point when one could walk the length and breadth of the country without artificial restriction, but that hasn’t existed in this country for several hundred years since the arrival of pastoralists and agriculturalists in the region.

I think the concept of land ownership over the centuries has changed with the arrival of new groups of people: the first human inhabitants (the Khoisan) likely did not see the land as something to be owned. The arrival of the Bantu expansion probably brought with it, if not immediately then in time, the concept of tribal lands (which probably had fluid borders and would have changed as tribes formed and broke apart over time), over which the tribal chiefs and kings would have exercised their authority and decided where crops would be planted, where buildings could be erected, etc.

It was really with European arrival that land was seen as something to be owned individually, and as a commodity that could change hands with monetary exchange.

Modern South Africa now exists in a weird state where in some regions tribal communal ‘ownership’ (as administered by tribal leaders) can overlap with individually owned land plots, often ‘owned’ (as in a title deed held) by people whose ancestors were non-African. Cities are mostly formalised land ownership, with extensive shantytowns frequently erected on government (and sometimes private) land, leading in some incidents to evictions (often done by private organisations hired to do so, such as the Red Ants).

As I’ve said, it’s a complicated mess.

In my own personal case, I have found it easier to access areas that are either privately owned that charge a fee for entrance, or government-owned national parks that can also charge a fee for entrance! I have not really entered communal-owned tribal lands because I am descended from non-African people, and because those tend to be far away from the city where I live. It is probably also because of safety that I don’t go as I do not know the local languages they speak (e.g. isiXhosa or isiZulu, etc) so I wouldn’t know which areas I would largely be safe in (and in South Africa, personal safety is important).

The experience described by @opisska is frankly a little bizarre and foreign to me. This sort of freedom of movement would never fly in South Africa, for several reasons.

  1. South Africa is a large country with many remote areas not easily accessed by road or water, and my perception of Europe is that when in the country you are never far from other people, because farms and towns are everywhere and roads are extensive. This is not the case in large areas of South Africa, especially in the arid northwest.

  2. Europe does not seem to have much in the way of dangerous wildlife, so camping anywhere one would like is much less of a risk. In South Africa one would probably need to be aware of venomous snakes, scorpions and spiders, as well as larger mammals such as baboon, leopard, hyena, and in some large national parks the additional species of buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus. All dangerous in their own right and not something you would want to end up on the wrong side of when camping! (For this reason many reserves and national parks are fenced, to prevent human-wildlife conflict, and part of the entrance fees go towards the maintenance of this critical infrastructure as well as the protection of the wildlife).

  3. For much the same reason, much less enthralling, is the risk of other humans, especially closer to towns and villages. Camping willy-nilly on land that is occupied by unfriendly and/or desperate people is tempting fate and can be a unpleasant experience, and law enforcement can be slow. That is not to say that camping in South Africa is always or inherently dangerous - quite the opposite in many cases. I can attest to this as I have camped before in remote areas where there are few other people. It depends on the area and region.

The private ownership of land with restriction of access, combined with ownership of wildlife, is probably a factor in the increase of certain wildlife populations in South Africa. The economic attraction in ecotourism has led some landowners (including communal ‘owners’) to stock their land with, and otherwise encourage the presence, of several game species.

This combined with the existence of national parks such as Kruger has resulted in a 180-degree shift in mindset for many people of European descent, such that much of the modern generation see wildlife as something to be cherished and protected, not shot or exterminated and replaced with livestock (this was a common attitude as recent as the 1950s where farms on market were even advertised as being free of wildlife!)

The economic benefits have also not escaped the notice of the tribal communal areas, where upon having received back land unfairly expropriated from them in the early 20th century, allocated at least some of it for wildlife reserves, such as in some areas of Zululand.

This change in attitude has resulted in the increase of absolute numbers in species populations. For example, the springbok is one of the few African antelope that is increasing in population, because of the vested interest of private conservationists, tribal communal owners, game farmers, and hunters.

Because people cannot just move across the land, many wildlife species can breed in relative peace (wildlife across the world including in Europe and North America, can and are negatively affected by the mere presence of humans in the landscape). It also prevents wildlife attacks on people, and thereby allows for the presence of large, dangerous predators such as lions and spotted hyenas in certain areas.

However this model of animal conservation and restriction of access is not without its downsides. The majority of poor people in South Africa do not have the money to pay for entering reserves that charge fees. There are thousands of South Africans that have never seen a wild mammal bigger than a dog - they have never seen an elephant, nor a lion, nor many of the magnificent animals that South Africa is famous for. This in turn can alienate them (and especially their children) from the wildlife and the land their ancestors lived with. The nature of poverty means that people affected by it do not have opportunities to access even the nature outside of cities as a means of leisure (what travel they do is mostly to their home community/town for family).

Poverty in such as a country as mine can create a purely consumptive mindset, that for the small bits of nature that exist in and around cities and can be freely entered without any fee, is seen as something to take from, whether this be poaching plants for medicinal “value” or running their dogs to hunt and harass the small wildlife left in such places. Such slivers of nature near impoverished communities can be also a crime hotspot, with anyone entering such places running the risk of muggings or worse.

However, the opposite can happen. Places that do not charge fees, or fences, or other forms of restriction of access, can be a place of healing and solace for people living in poverty and similar dire situations. Places such as Table Mountain and the Cape Peninsula in Cape Town have been a place where people from all walks of life can enjoy nature, and there are some projects/initiatives that take children from impoverished areas such as the Cape Flats on these outings where they can experience biodiversity and nature as something they too can experience, and to show them that there is more to life and possibilities than just poverty and violence.

tl;dr for better and for worse, the ease of access to nature in South Africa is a multifaceted and complex matter, with pros and cons for both the freedom of access and the restriction thereof.


This is an incredibly thorough and considered response and a fascinating read for a U.S.-ian. Thank you for taking the time to write it!


Not sure about modern laws, but if I purchased land, I’d like to not have people camping there without permission, esp. if I wanted to save biodiversity there, I think owners should decide for themselves if they want to allow people on their land, and what I learnt from UK tv series, allow people to use paths that exist there for hundreds of years.


The history of “no trespassing” in America. As with so much else, it has to do with the Civil War.


For some reason, many Americans cannot keep themselves from destroying public places. They litter, deface structures, damage fences and gates, etc. In that context, it’s probably best to keep the public out, sadly.


I hear you there. I remember driving through so much of Texas and wanting to get out and collect insects, and there is so much empty land, but the dreaded barbed wire fence would appear literally everywhere. Same thing in SC when I’d see a nice patch of habitat and it would look for all the world like a patch of dense forest, but inevitably you’d look a bit closer at the trees and see a rusty FENCE just running along the road for miles and miles with not a person to be found. In the northeast you’d have a beautiful powerline cut with a road going through it, and it the road there would be a gate with “No Trespassing” on it, so no hiker or naturalist can even consider entering. Same with random nice fields of milkweed, where you have the very aggressively worded signs that are even more worrisome than “No Trespassing”, like ones that say “I shoot first, press charges later”. I mean I know lots of these are to prevent squatters, weed planting, and illegal hunting, but these signs put a blanket “do not enter” for anyone, and finding and talking to land owners with such signs is also sketchy. Some of these people are unlikely to even be friendly. I wish there was a “No Trespassing unless you are hiking”, but Americans are WAY too possessive of their random hundreds of empty acres of land.


“You think you own whatever land you land on
The earth is just a dead thing you can claim”
– Disney’s version of Pocahontas

“Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.”
– Robert Frost

These two snippets of poetry hint at what once may have been, and what changed. I think the idea of “No Trespassing” long predates the American Civil War; the Enclosure Acts in Britain began in 1604.


I listened to the 99% Invisible podcast episode on Right to Roam, and similar access-friendly laws around Europe, nordic countries, and Scotland, and it challenged a lot of my unexamined conceptions about ownership and exclusivity. I’m sure it has its imperfections, but it sounds wonderful.

This was extremely enlightening. Your description of indigenous space in South Africa maps onto the feelings many people I know have toward indigenous reservations in Montana. Justified or not, people think of them as dangerous places to travel through.

I slept at a National Wildlife Refuge last night. Even as a solo white dude in a locked van in an extremely unpopulated area on public land, I had to fight fear of someone coming and doing mischief to me in the night. I can imagine that changes to those conditions would all compound to discourage the thought of travelling through different spaces.

I see you, Montanan! :)

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You should read Trespassing Across America. He discussed these things at length as he traveled the former proposed path of the Keystone XL Pipeline across mostly private land.

One of the fascinating observations was the change from Alberta to Montana, where everyone started warning him that “so-and-so will shoot you if he sees you on his land”. He goes through the couple of tragic, but very few, instances where an innocent bystander was shot on or near posted property.

Also, corner crossing is another huge issue, where it is technically trespassing to cross the corners of checkerboard public land. Many law enforcement officials in Montana and Wyoming have stated that they will not enforce it. A recent case in Wyoming led to a not-guilty verdict in a jury trial. I believe a civil suit is still in process.


Doesn’t this indicate that we need a system that recognizes and rewards good behavior, and punishes bad behavior in these places? I hope trying something like that is a better place to start before we shut it all down.

Well, I wasn’t actually suggesting that we close public access because of it–just meant to imply that what works in one country may not work as well in another (here are some examples in our national parks). The type of people that deface public property aren’t interested in being rewarded for good behavior. And I have no idea how one would go about making such a reward. Rewards and punishment can happen only if there’s a camera (with Big Brother watching the monitor). I’m sure if there were solutions, we’d have figured it out.

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Haha yes, I had to click on the topic with MT in the subject! I have a lot of thoughts about this issue but not enough mental energy to sort through them at the moment, so I’m sticking to reading others’ input.

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