There was some important work done recently through a joint effort by onX Maps Inc. and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership that paints a clear picture of why the fight for public lands and access is not just a battle for western states to fight.

OnX, the popular GPS mapping app for hunters, looked through millions of acres of public lands to find out which ones have no public road or trail access. Nationally so far, 16.2 million acres have been found to be inaccessible to the public.

Much of that is in the west, and that is generally where we hear about this issue. OnX and TRCP’s research found in 2019 that 6.35 million state acres paid for by the public in the west is inaccessible without permission from neighboring landowners. That’s after a 2018 report that found 9.52 million federal public land acres are landlocked in 13 western states.

Many elk, antelope and mule deer hunters in Minnesota and neighboring states use public land in those western states to their advantage, but when it comes to whitetails, turkeys and small game back home, we seem to have our chunk of private land to get by on. At least that’s how it feels because so much of the land around us in central Minnesota is privately owned.

The truth is that’s not the case for everyone. That’s evident by the surveys that show that one of the biggest reasons people don’t hunt is due to a lack of places to hunt.

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The research done by onX and TRCP continued this year in the midwest. A report put out in early August showed that Minnesota has 248,000 total landlocked acres of public land. Wisconsin has an additional 55,000. John Myers with the Forum News Service had a great breakdown of how the lands were acquired and what can be done about creating more access that ran in the Aug. 26 issue of the Echo Press.

In Minnesota, 46,000 of those acres are adjacent to water. Some of those acres are accessible by watercraft or making a long walk in a pair of waders, but some are not suitable for either.

I personally have had my eye on a 10-acre piece just like this where I hunt in southwestern Minnesota. It looks perfect for holding a good buck, but it’s impossible to get to without traveling miles through a river or getting permission. Using the river as access in recent years has been impossible due to high water levels.

If you have ever tried gaining permission to deer hunt in Minnesota, you know how difficult it can be. I’ve worked pretty hard at it around the Alexandria area. I have heard many “no’s,” but I am grateful to have a few private parcels I can hunt within a 30 minute drive from my house.

I also have hunted a lot of public pieces around Douglas County and know there are plenty of people who rely on those lands for all of the hunting they do.

One hunter I talk with frequently took up bow hunting last year for the first time and shot two deer off of area public land. He’s hooked now, which is exactly what we need more of.

Minnesota’s resident deer-hunting license sales for the regular firearms season reached a 10-year low in 2019 with 351,659 licenses sold. That’s down from 391,967 in 2013.

Same goes for resident archery-license sales, which were at a 10-year low of 85,343 last year. That’s down from 95,259 in 2012. Muzzleloader-license sales saw the same thing with a 10-year low of 43,126 licenses sold in 2019, down from a 10-year high of 63,282 in 2009.

Some will look at that and think, “Good. Less pressure for me to worry about.”

But we lose our voice on matters of conservation when we lose hunters and anglers. Those lost license sales are also important dollars not going into the game and fish fund that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources could use on enforcement and management of public lands and waters.

The ability to access those 248,000 acres in Minnesota could draw in new hunters and disperse current hunters across more land, maybe even lessening the pressure on your favorite piece of ground.

Landlocked public acres are best made accessible through agreements with private landowners that can result in land exchanges, acquisitions or easements. That takes funding. The recent passage of the Great American Outdoors Act that fully funds the Land and Water Conservation fund at $900 million annually opens some doors for that. There is now $27 million annually earmarked to help gain access to public lands for outdoor recreation.

By visiting their “Unlocking Public Lands” page online, The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership makes it easy to learn about and contact your representatives in congress to encourage the passage of the MAPLand Act. The MAPLand Act would help public land management agencies digitize and share public-land access information that is currently only kept on paper files that makes it hard for the public to even know where public-access opportunities are.

Reach out to your elected officials and let them know that access to public lands is an issue you care about. It won’t happen overnight, but finding a way to access these lands that rightfully belong to all of us is an important part of growing our numbers and creating more opportunity for those of us who love hunting, fishing and exploring wild places.

Eric Morken
Eric Morken