By Tony J. Peterson
Western hunters have long griped about the amount of landlocked public dirt in their states. All of those chunks of dreamy elk and mule deer ground sitting as private playgrounds for bordering landowners, or in many cases, as revenue-generating opportunities for them really rubbed the residents wrong. And for good reason.
While this is a real issue to folks in states ranging from New Mexico all of the way up to Washington, we never really had a full grasp on how bad it was until onX partnered up with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership in 2018 to fully dig into the issue. What they found was that in the 11 western states they broke down, 6.35 million acres were landlocked and rendered inaccessible without permission from a neighboring landowner.
About 75 percent of western hunters depend on public land to get their in-field fix, which means those acres sitting there out of reach would be put to very good use through easements or other means of legal access. Some states have been open to pursuing those options, or engaging in land swaps to remedy access issues, which is something we should all applaud.
The full report onX put together is an eye opener, and every hunter should read it.
You might be thinking that since you’ll never hunt elk and prefer West Virginia whitetails it would be a waste of your time. It’s not. To think of this as a western-only issue is a mistake, and as access to private deer ground east of the Mississippi becomes more difficult to come by, landlocked or difficult-to-access public land will creep more steadily into the spotlight.
With truly landlocked ground, you’ve only got a couple options until Elon Musk or some other brainiac starts mass-producing personal jet packs. You can hope the state figures out a way to let folks in or try to get permission from an adjacent landowner.
With difficult-to-access land, you’ve got a few options.
Where There’s Water, There’s (Probably) a Way
Some states have extremely restrictive water use rights. Others label navigable waters as public thoroughfares offering folks the legal opportunity to stay within the banks or the high-water marks to go upstream or down as they please. These are my favorite, because a lot of public land I hunt is only accessible by water.
Others are more restrictive but will let you get into the water at a public access, and provided you don’t step out onto land until you get to public, you’re totally legal regardless of who owns the land beneath the water. I’ve used this, sometimes only with knee-high boots, in a few states and it can be a game-changer.
In fact, when I was growing up and just cutting my teeth as a bowhunter, I spent quite a bit of time hunting a piece of public in the bluff country of south-eastern Minnesota. One day I drove in to hunt and it was clear that the public parking area was gone and posted signs were everywhere. I didn’t even know the state could sell off a parking area, but they did. Later I learned from a buddy doing an internship with a surveying company that they had sold it to a fellow with a vested interested in making access as difficult as possible, which is fodder for another story…
They got away with it because the land still had access via a mid-sized river. You could launch a canoe or a kayak, or simply get in and start wading, and eventually you’d reach the public. It wasn’t ideal, and wasn’t much fun in the dark with a treestand on your back, but it was a solution. And honestly, the hunting got a lot better in there when it got a lot harder to hunt. I’d have rather it stayed easier to access though because that land isn’t there just for the lunatics who will wade half of a mile of river in the dark to hunt. It exists for all of us.
If there is a parcel of public that you can’t easily get to, or can’t get to at all, treat access just like you would when trying to hunt someone’s ground. Be polite, clearly define exactly what you want to do on their land, and then obey every single dictum they set forth. A lot of private landowners will still give you a chance, but you’ll be on probation. One slip up, like parking in front of gate or showing up with five buddies when you said it’d be you and you alone, and it’s over.
Other options, especially when dealing with private land that is open to the public, might dictate that legal access has to be granted. This means you might pull up your phone and look at an 80-acre parcel that clearly doesn’t have road or river access and think it’s out of reach. But the state program that the land is enrolled in, usually for extensive tax breaks, spells out by law that the landowner has to provide access. In this case, reaching out to the landowner and asking them about the access is the first step. If they aren’t cooperative, it’s time to call the state and get them involved.
These situations aren’t ideal, but they are reality. Some landowners will take advantage of these programs and try to limit public access while either enjoying the tax breaks or taking payments from the state - in other words, payments from you and your fellow hunters. The key with these situations is to fully understand the laws and follow them. If that sounds like it sucks to deal with, you’re right. But it’s also reality and the burden of not screwing up is on us as hunters, so we have to take that seriously and if we do, we might find ourselves hunting whitetails or other critters on public land where we never thought it possible.