A trend in legislation at the state level has been for state governments to proactively increase access for outdoor recreation on public lands. Below is a deep dive into the issue and how partnering with private landowners, to better-connect the public to public lands, affects outdoor recreation.

Each year, 25 million RVers travel across this amazing country to experience all the natural wonders that America has to offer. From the mighty redwoods in California, to the sandy beaches of Florida and everywhere in between, RVers seek an escape in nature and on the open road. In their many miles of travels, RVers come to understand just how important logistics can be in hampering access to the impressive array of public lands we have in the United States. Whether that’s a national park campground that is closed because of maintenance issues or the only access road being gated with a “No Trespassing” sign, frustrations can mount and discourage participation in the economic engine and American tradition that is RVing.

Islands And Checkerboards: How We Privatized A Public Resource

Lack of access to public lands has been and continues to be a significant barrier to participation in all kinds of outdoor recreation. Whether it be for hunting, fishing, hiking, or any number of the many ways Americans choose to recreate, there exists a systemic problem when it comes to the public being able to access all the public lands that the United States boasts.

There are 9.52 million acres of public lands sitting inaccessible to the public and can only be accessed with the permission of the neighboring private landowners. Another report showed 50.4 million acres (14%) of U.S. Forest Service and BLM lands have ‘inadequate’ access. This lack of access to public lands oftentimes occurs because the land sits as an island, surrounded entirely by private land holdings. You may also hear of the issue of land existing in a ‘checkerboard,’ where public lands exist in square parcels that only meet at their very corners, which usually does not allow for legal crossing.

Private landowners’ unwillingness to grant public access across their land has increased over the past decade as the public’s use of federal land has increased; effectively privatizing this public resource. While private landowners’ concerns about vandalism and potential liability, along with their desire for privacy, are valid and should be addressed, the wishes of a few private landowners to have exclusive access to public lands for personal use and financial gain is detrimental to outdoor recreationalists.

State-Level Policy To Increase Access

In response to this growing issue, land access programs have been created in several states to provide incentives to private landowners who open their land for outdoor recreation uses. Incentives may include tax breaks, discounted hunting and angling licenses, grants for wildlife habitat improvement and reduced liability for any incidents that may occur on their land, such as a hiker getting injured on a trail.

In addition to increasing the acreage available for outdoor recreation, benefits include providing an economic boost to rural communities, strengthening ties between rural and urban communities, and increasing opportunities for technical assistance for fish and wildlife management on private lands.

Montana’s Governor signed Senate Bill 341 into law on May 3to establish the Public Access to Lands (PAL) Act. The bill allows the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Division to negotiate more flexible and individualized agreements with private landowners to grant access for the public to otherwise inaccessible public lands. Montana already offers several access programs (through Unlocking Public Lands and Montana Public Lands Access Network), but still has approximately 1.5 million acres of inaccessible federal land. The PAL Act allows landowners and the department to tailor individual agreements to fit the needs of landowners, instead of a larger one-size-fits-all program, which may be more appealing to those landowners that have not already participated in existing programs.

Kentucky took a more targeted approach with their House Bill 249, an act to promote outdoor recreation and tourism development, that the Governor signed into law on March 26, 2019. The bill seeks to continue to better county-to-county coordination of recreational trail development by building upon the recently created Kentucky Mountain Regional Recreation Authority (KMRA). The purpose of the authority is to “establish, maintain and promote a recreational trail system throughout the KMRA to increase economic development, tourism and outdoor recreation for residents and visitors.” A significant portion of the trail system sits on, or is planned for, private property and the KMRA was created in part to help facilitate contractual agreements with private landowners in order to connect the existing patchwork of trails on public lands into an impressive continuous hiking trail.

The RV Industry Association is monitoring this positive trend in state legislation and hopes that the successful efforts in Kentucky and Montana will set good examples for other states seeking to increase access to their public lands.

Federal Policy To Increase Access

While some individual states seek to address the issue of access to public lands for outdoor recreation with their own programs, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has been the main tool for this purpose at the federal level. Since its inception in 1964, LWCF has opened more than 5 million acres of public lands. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is an important American conservation program, investing more than $16 billion in conservation and outdoor recreation over more than 50 years in all 50 states.

The RV Industry Association, as a member of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable (ORR), has supported reauthorization of the LWCF, which saw a major success earlier this year. On March 12, 2019, the LWCF was permanently reauthorized as part of a larger public lands package, the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, signed into law by President Trump. While this permanent status was a critical win, outdoor recreation groups will still need to continue to lobby Congress for the program to be fully funded each year, so the RV Industry Association will continue to support that effort.

For more information on this issue, please contact Government Affairs Director, Mike Ochs at [email protected].