Sportsmen and women have to be really careful to make sure they are not trespassing on public land. A new report finds that Wyoming has the most landlocked public land in the West at 3.05 million acres. A recent decision by Park County Commissioners could have added another 160.
Down the South Fork outside of Cody, there's a parcel of state trust land - lands designated to support public institutions. In order to access it, one has to drive down road 6JM. But as Jim Gleason found out, it's a little confusing.
"I drove out and then I thought, well because of these signs I don't want to be tagged for trespassing or create any problems," he said.
Gleason has been a Cody resident and avid hunter and angler for years. He depends on public lands to recreate.
Road 6JM has an easement which allows the public to access 160 acres of state trust land that otherwise would be landlocked by private land. Brian Edwards, the Park County engineer, said those trespass signs are left over from when there was no easement on the road.
"There was never physical legal access prior to 1992, which is when the landowners granted those easements to the county," said Edwards.
In 1992, landowners surrounding the state land granted the county easements to a couple of roads for the purpose of making a loop road. One of those roads was 6JM; the road that Gleason was trying to access. The loop road was never built and now T.E. Ranch, which owns the surrounding land petitioned the county to vacate road 6JM and the other road because the county is not maintaining it.
Edwards said it's too expensive to maintain the roads for a handful of people, which means the public would lose access.
"It should revert back to that original condition, if the county is not pursuing a loop road," said Edwards.
Like Gleason, Joel Webster said there needs to be access to public land for recreating. He's with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership which recently published the report finding a total of 9.52 million acres of landlocked federal public lands in the West.
"Traditionally, things like county abandonment of maintained roads probably wasn't perceived as a big issue because the public felt they could use those routes with permission," said Webster. "But now we live at a time where access to land is pretty hard to acquire."
Webster said the West and Wyoming has so much inaccessible public land because of the way the region was settled.
"The federal government incentivized the establishment of the railroad to the West bypassing railroad acts where they would give those railroad alternating sections on both sides of the tracks," said Webster. "It would look like a checkerboard where the railroad would get the black square while the fed government would retain the red square."
Checkerboarding is when land ownership is intermingled between federal and private land which makes it difficult to access some public land. According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey, 72 percent of western hunters depend on public land for some or all of their access. For hunters in the West like Brien Webster, this matters.
"The lack of access is one of the top reasons cited for giving up our sporting traditions," he said.
Webster is the Colorado and Wyoming chapter coordinator for the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. He said access to public land has become a major issue for their group. They are trying to work together with the state, federal and local landowners to open and keep public access. Jim Gleason, the Cody resident who brought this to the group's attention, agrees.
"What I would like to see is cooperative agreement with the state and the T.E. Ranch to perhaps open access to that BLM ground that is landlocked behind their land," said Gleason.
For now, the public easement on road 6JM survived another day as the Park County Commissioners decided to contribute some money to work on the road which means access to the public land still exists. But this is a short-term solution and the bigger issue of guaranteeing public access to public lands continues.