Imagine if you owned a 40- or 80-acre tract of land — say it was good for deer or turkey hunting or maybe mushroom picking — but that land was surrounded by neighbors who could stop you from getting to your own property.
You’d probably be pretty mad, right?
A new report released this month found 248,000 acres of public land in Minnesota — land owned by the taxpayers — that you can’t legally get to without permission, with no public access and surrounded by private property. There’s another 55,000 acres of landlocked public land in Wisconsin.
Nationwide, the research found thousands of parcels of public land that add up to nearly 16.2 million acres inaccessible to the public.
The report comes from a joint effort of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Alliance and onX Maps Inc., the online GPS mapping app.
The plots are national and state forest land, wildlife management and hunting areas, county and municipal forest and more — all public land owned by taxpayers and, by law, supposedly open for public recreation like hiking, hunting and birdwatching for everyone.
Some plots are small and isolated, 40-acre parcels or even smaller. Others include hundreds of acres each — some nearly 4,000 acres — cut off from public roads or other access.
They should be open to everyone, not just those people who happen to own the land around it, said Joel Webster, public lands coordinator for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Alliance. There's no single culprit in why so many parcels are landlocked, but Webster says the time is ripe to fix the problem.
“A lot of these parcels came into the system over the last 100 years in small chunks and not necessarily in a very organized system. ... A lot of them have been in the (public lands) system on paper, but never really managed or accessible for the public,’’ Webster said. “So when onX used their technology to look for these parcels, it is pretty amazing what they found.”
Some of the plots have been in public ownership since statehood, conveyed to the state from the federal government, but never sold or used for anything. Others reverted back to public ownership due to tax forfeiture, especially during the Great Depression, but also as ill-conceived farms on marginal lands failed to produce. Other plots were purchased by the government to build or enlarge forests or wildlife habitat, but then those efforts ran out of support or money and the plots were never connected.
Just north of Duluth, a 100-acre tract of land was donated to the state to create Lieuna Wildlife Management Area in North Star Township. The state accepted and designated the land on the shore of a shallow wild rice lake with the intent of managing for wild rice, waterfowl and recreation. But there’s never been a legal way to get to it, Martha Minchak, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife manager in Duluth, said.
“The only access is by permission from the adjacent private landowners. They have always been great about letting us in to do (forestry) management work, but are not very open to hunters, gatherers or other recreationists,’’ Minchak noted.
So the wildlife management area that’s supposed to be open to hikers, hunters and wild rice harvesting remains off-limits.
OnX at first used computer algorithms to cipher through millions of acres of public lands and find out which ones have no public road access according to their GPS data. Then they went back in and confirmed each tract. (An earlier, 2018 report from the same groups found 196,000 acres of federal landlocked land in South Dakota and 107,000 acres of federal public land inaccessible in North Dakota.)
While most of the 16 million acres nationally are in western states with huge tracts of public land — including 1.56 million acres of public land in Montana the public can't use — the landlocked public acres in parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin may be even more valuable to hunters and others because so much land in the southern two-thirds of each state is privately owned.
“We know how important public land access opportunities are to hunters and anglers all across the country,” Lisa Nichols, public land access advocacy manager for onX, said. “Especially in places where the majority of the landscape is privately owned."
Lack of access to quality recreational land is often cited as a reason many people drop out of or don’t participate in outdoor activities, so both onX and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership are working with state and federal agencies and lawmakers to both add new public land options and improve access to existing areas.
“It is our hope that with this information, policymakers can see the problem, identify solutions and work to ensure that sportsmen and sportswomen can access the lands that belong to them,’’ Webster said.
That might include government land agencies buying private lands to connect to landlocked parcels, or securing easements (road or trail access) across private lands. Other options include trading landlocked public plots for acreage that’s already accessible by public roads and rights of way and, in some cases, selling some inaccessible public land plots and using the money to buy accessible lands.
But Webster said conservation groups stand ready to thwart any effort to sell the landlocked public parcels and not replace them.
“Anyone who is out there saying recreational access isn’t valuable is short-sighted. If people can get to the land, they’re going to be spending money in that (nearest) town,’’ he said. “The economic impact of public land recreation is well documented.”
Other hunting and conservation groups also are carrying the effort. Eran Sandquist, Minnesota state coordinator with Pheasants Forever, the upland bird habitat conservation group, said they are “actively working to unlock access to public lands across western Minnesota and in other areas of the Midwest, which translates to increased and improved hunting opportunities.”
In Minnesota, the DNR has been coordinating efforts to expand public land options for people for several years, part of the agency’s Strategic Lands Asset Management program. Acquiring new land and improving access to existing state land are top priorities, said Trina Zieman, who heads DNR planning for the program. The state already has prioritized most tracts that need access.
But it still takes a willing seller, Zieman noted, and willing local governments, to convert private land into public, even for access to existing public land. The state won’t use any legal force to force a sale as it might for, say, widening a highway.
“It can be a long process. But we are in this for the long haul. We have the tools in place. We have 50- and 100-year plans … Eventually, land ownership changes. Or the owner’s perspectives change ... And we will be there to make it happen,’’ Zieman said.
Not only does Minnesota have a plan to acquire more public land access, Zieman noted, but it also has the means. Established in 2008, Minnesota’s Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council funds projects that protect, enhance or restore prairies, wetlands, forests or other habitat, and can also be used to open or expand access to inaccessible wildlife management areas. The fund gets the money from a dedicated portion of the state sales tax.
In Wisconsin, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program funds efforts to conserve habitat and water quality, and also prioritizes expanding opportunities for outdoor recreation.
Nationally, the recent passage of the Great American Outdoors Act — signed into law by President Trump on Aug. 3 — guarantees $900 million annually in federal oil and gas lease royalties will go to federal and state public lands efforts, including expanding public lands and expanding access.
The so-called federal Land and Water Conservation Fund will now provide a guaranteed $27 million in annual federal funding for public access work. Additionally, at least 40% of the program’s total budget must be used for state-driven projects.
“There is actually good news here because we now have the means to solve this problem and work together to get more people access to more areas outdoors,’’ Webster said. “Now our job is to make that happen.”