"Public lands" the public can't access

This article https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/calif-public-land-access-barred-17764934.php explains how half a million acres of land in California that is supposed to be public land for public use has been made inaccessible by private landowners blocking access to them. I’m just wondering whether any iNatters have had personal experiences relating to this issue that they would like to share. Or personal experiences relating to similar issues in other U.S. states. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/26/business/hunting-wyoming-elk-mountain-access.html. Or in other countries.


This is a huge issue in Hawaii. Much of the lower elevation cultivated land was sold during the conversion from feudal to private ownership during the 1800s, while the government retained the upper forested lands. The result is that it’s impossible to access many state forest reserves. Terrain is also an issue, in some cases the distance is not far or there is technically a boundary, but it requires crossing an impossibly steep valley wall.


Moved this to #nature-talk because it’s not directly related to iNaturalist.


I think I can count on my hand times when someone’s fence was a distraction, I know there’re sometimes illegal fencing of beaches or someone builts house close to a lake and others can’t get by it anymore, but personally I’ve never seen such things.


All beaches in Mexico are constitutionally and legally public, and fines are large for restricting access. Additionally all public spaces, including beaches and parks, are by federal law non-smoking, with large fines for repeat offenses.


That has been and continues to be an issue here in Canada. IIRC most of the issue here has been related to access to lakes for fishing and boating but access to forested areas is gradually becoming a an issue. The irony is that the government seems to be able to force landowners to allow access for utility companies but not the general public.


Interestingly, the underlying mapping research was performed by the producer of an app for hunters along with a non-profit that seeks “to guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.” I appreciate that there can be areas where responsible hunting can support wildlife and biodiversity, but this does raise the question of what would happen if there was better public access to these 530,000 acres of isolated public land in California or the 16.4 million acres across similarly affected across the United States.

Given that much of this isolated land is quite remote I can imagine that the main people who would take advantage of better access would indeed be hunters, and so the net result would be that these places would see more hunting. If that hunting is focused on species that are overpopulated because of a lack of predators, then I guess the result might be beneficial for biodiversity. But it’s certainly not guaranteed. And of course there’s an argument that nature protection should be an overt process and not just an artefact of poor access.


We need fines like that in those States where this is technically true.

Don’t get me started on the Ha`iku Stairs. $875,000 stolen from Hawaii taxpayers. It should either be paid back or the thieves prosecuted. Or both.

This hasn’t been an issue for me in California but I’m not too adventurous.

Yeah, lots of amazing places are tough to access. I was able to get driven to the peak of Mt. Ka’ala a year ago (as a volunteer) primarily because a family friend who basically bulit the military’s conservation unit there helped me out. You can hike to the peak, but it’s brutal.

I’m from the area but am way too acrophobic to have ever attempted it. If I remember correctly, one issue was that the church that owns the property needed to access the stairs rescinded their approval for access because they claimed the person who signed the document was not in a position to make that decision.


Why do you imagine that? Can you imagine iNatters wanting to use the same area? How about indigenous hunters? Would they be OK? Who counts as public? Does someone who wants to hunt or fish have less rights?

I cannot recall exactly but I do not think the fines were quite so large before the pandemic when some of the hotels began using social distancing requirements as a rationale for blocking beach access to non-guests, in violation. Protests occurred and clarification was required.

Really, I’m just raising issues that may not be apparent when someone first reads that half a million of acres of public land are inaccessible because access is blocked by private landowners.

Certainly, when I read the headline, my mental picture was mostly of something like Martins Beach (featured in the SF Gate article) where a landowner has prevented access to a public beach. What didn’t come to mind were individual 160-acre enclaves such as these around the South Fork Eel River Wilderness:

Among the wide variety of public lands in the United States, it’s reasonable to assume that these currently inaccessible parcels will have a lot fewer amenities than the average (remote, with few trails, and physically difficult access even if the legal impediments were removed). So they’re not likely to attract a lot of people for casual recreation or even many hikers.

I would agree that iNatters, like hunters, could be more likely to take advantage of access, as both groups are more interested in less developed land. There are lots of iNat users (as we all know) and some are also hunters. But remote areas with no trails get a whole lot less iNat activity than, say, a similarly sized area in a national or state park. In contrast, hunting is prohibited in many parks, so unsurprisingly, hunters are among the most active users of areas such as BLM and national forest land. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that opening up access to isolated parcels public land is likely to result in more hunting on that land (especially since there is presumably almost zero hunting on those parcels now). In fact, that is the explicit agenda of OnX and TRCP is doing the research and promoting it to news outlets. There’s a separate matter of whether more hunting is good or bad (and in what circumstances).

These other questions you raise are all things typically addressed by public policy. In general, yes, someone that wants to hunt or fish does have less rights than someone that wants to hike or birdwatch. Hunting and fishing requires permits, catch/take limits, observance of closed seasons and closed areas, etc. that typically are required much less for hikers. Of course, all types of activity on public land have limits of some sort. Areas may be closed even to hiking for safety, wildlife protection or because the military appropriated them.

As to who gets to hunt, my personal view is that there’s some merit to the idea that cultural ties and subsistence needs should get priority when hunting permits are decided. I’m less sympathetic to the “big game” hunter that wants to put a bighorn sheep on the wall of his trophy room.

By raising the issue of possible impacts from opening up this land I’m not saying that it should remain inaccessible just because its surrounded by private land. I would much prefer that this land was properly protected based on assessment of the conservation and scientific merits of each individual parcel. Some might be best placed under stronger protection, such as wildlife refuges. Others might be seen as suitable to be opened up for hunting or other activities. Rather than saying “keep it closed” I’m saying “open it up responsibly”.


I doubt it would change the number of hunters. More likely, hunting pressure would become modestly more evenly distributed across public lands. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but there’s not an obvious reason for me to think it’s a bad thing.

Not really, in my experience. The probability of access being blocked by private land increases with the proportion of the land that is private. In a western U.S. context, private land more or less equates to “places people already were living at the time the area became part of the U.S. + places people wanted to live in the following decades + places where the federal government gave away land en masse to encourage development”. The third category includes areas near early railway corridors… this is a lot of the isolated public land in southern Wyoming, for instance.


For what it’s worth, in the western U.S. I think the most plausible / effective fix for the problem would be for federal land management agencies to make allowing public access across private lands to isolated public lands a condition of certain categories of public land use permits. There’s little ability for the federal government to force a private land owner to allow public access across their lands without getting into eminent domain and a whole host of resulting political quagmires. On the other hand, the federal government does have power to grant or deny various kinds of permits to use public land. Grazing permits would have the greatest impact. At least in areas I’m familiar with (New Mexico, to a lesser extent Arizona and Colorado, and to a much lesser extent various other states), most of the isolated public land is on the other side of private land owned by someone who also has a permit to graze livestock on public land. This would still receive a lot of political opposition and I think it’s very unlikely to happen. But I think it’s the most plausible path toward substantial reduction of the problem.


In support of Rupert Clayton’s observations, I would like to add that the best protected lands in California are, by far, the various military bombing ranges. If you ever get a chance to access them, you will see what I mean. Two examples out of dozens include San Clemente Island which is quite the botanists dream, and the Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range where I was fortunate enough to participate in a survey of the tortoise population in the 1970’s. We had a team of ordnance specialists walking with us the entire day and were closely supervised. Basically the tortoise population was four times that of the neighboring control areas. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chocolate_Mountain_Aerial_Gunnery_Range
I understand the sentiment of the post of course. It’s very annoying that one can only access these public lands as a guest of the landowner, although my packraft has been a solution for me twice when I was able to use the Snake and the Deschutes Rivers to access sealed-off BLM lands. But I kind of like to think of some areas that humans can’t profane with their bottles and cans, and other garbage.


These are generally not included in statistics regarding inaccessible public lands—most of the land involved is managed by the Department of Defense, and there’s no real expectation of public access. Department of Defense lands and BLM or USFS lands that are blocked by private property are, at least, very different things.

My experience in New Mexico has been similar, though, in that DOD lands are—with the exception of those parts they drop live ordnance on or drive tanks over—in much better ecological condition that surrounding public and private lands.


I agree.

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And that should be avoided, having part of the land saved with less pressure matters more, that is why regular people can’t get to reserves without permission (or to the core area of national park), keeping people out there saves a lot of organisms.

We aren’t talking about reserves, though. These aren’t lands with fewer human impacts, they’re lands that the public can’t get to. Power companies, oil & gas, ranchers—some subset of all those folks do have access and are using public lands for their commercial enterprises. It’s just the rest of us who don’t have access.

It’s public land that is being treated as if it were private land.


I think it was clear from my comment, that it was an example of why people not having access is better than the same amount of humans everywhere. Even having companies there doesn’t change that.