The onX hunting app is a must-have for navigating the backcountry. The smartphone-based mapping system works in all 50 states, offers aerial topographical views, and tracks you whether or not you’re within the range of your cell network (thanks to your phone’s built-in GPS, which it overlays over saved maps). And crucially for hunters, onX’s layered maps let you know right away whether you’re on public or private land.
This mountain of geographic data led the people at onX to a question: Just how accessible are our nation’s public lands? The company teamed up with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership as part of a project to support the reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and they found something startling: A whole lot of public land can’t be readily accessed by most people.
According to the study, thousands of square miles of our public lands are inaccessible. These areas are landlocked between private tracts of land with no legal access for everyday citizens. That means while the land is intended for everyone, effectively it can only be used by those wealthy enough to secure access to the lands across their own property lines or down their own gated roads.
How can we fix this? Eric Siegfried, the founder of onX, says: “The full reauthorization of Land and Water Conservation Fund is the best way forward—and is the tool to help improve access to these special places.”
Congress created the Land and Water Conservation Fund in a 1964 bipartisan effort to protect our natural areas, resources, and history by promoting conservation and recreation in our public lands, and by funding the purchase of private land from willing landholders. Since its inception, the fund has opened five million acres of public land and put $16 billion toward conservation and outdoor recreation.
What now? Siegfried says:
“Our next steps are to continue working with both the Department of the Interior and local officials to validate the lands that are landlocked. Then we’d like to share that data with agencies and groups that are developing relationships to improve access.”
Continued investment in the Land and Water Conservation Fund could help increase access by way of targeted land buys meant to open up isolated spaces. The forces isolating these lands have been nuanced, from the “checkerboard” land sales the federal government adopted during the construction of railroads to the growth of private land holdings, some which entirely encompass public lands. So too will be the approach to open the lands up to the average American.
If you’re a concerned citizen, there are ways to help, Siegfried says. “I hope this study gives people awareness and a sense of urgency to get involved and support their local land trust and similar groups doing access work, such as Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and The Nature Conservancy.”