SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The federal government owns around 640 million acres of land in the United States, managed by four main agencies; the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the United States Forest Service (USFS), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Park Service (NPS). The Department of Defense also manages some areas. Land managed by these agencies is, except in certain situations, open to the public.
Beyond federal lands, individual states also own hold land in the form of conservation areas, state parks, state recreation areas, and more. Between the federal and state governments, there is an abundance of public land for the average citizen to enjoy. This land is used for all kinds of recreation; for sightseeing, camping, fishing, hunting and other outdoor sports and activities, and theoretically, nearly all of this land is open for this.
However, the reality is more complicated than that. The United States is a patchwork of parcels of land, some big, and many very small. The public lands owned by the government are scattered across the country, and filling in the spaces between are large swaths of private land owned by individuals, organizations and businesses.
The percentage of public vs. private land varies by state. Alaska leads the pack with 89.2% its land being public, according to date from the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Iowa bookends the other side of the list with only 1.04% of its land being public. South Dakota falls on the low end of the list as well with only 7.53% of its total area constituting public land.
The scattered nature of public lands in the U.S., along with the abundance of private land has led, in some places, to the phenomenon of what is called “landlocked” public land. This is land owned by the government and open to the public, which the public is unable to access due to it being entirely enclosed within private lands.
The Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Project, an organization whose mission it is to “guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish,” states that there are 16.43 million acres of inaccessible public land located in 22 states, most of which lie in the western half of the country. According to the TRCP, the largest amount of landlocked public land is in Wyoming, where there are 4.1 million acres of inaccessible public land.
Here in South Dakota, the numbers are smaller, but the issue is still present. The TRCP identifies 196,000 acres of landlocked federal land in the state, but does not have a number on the amount of state-owned land which inaccessible.
In an effort to find more details, KELOLAND News reached out to Kevin Robling, the interim Department Secretary of the South Dakota Game Fish and Parks. The SDGFP owns 285,000 acres of land across the state in 57 different counties, all of which Robling says is open to the public.
“Very few of those acres are landlocked. I would say there is less than a couple thousand acres of GPAs — game production areas that we call them — that are landlocked throughout the state,” said Robling. “The vast majority of our landlocked acres throughout South Dakota are Bureau of Reclamation, BLM. We have national grasslands, there’s some National Forests in the Black Hills. There’s also school and public lands. Now there’s another 700,000 acres of school and public lands out in the landscape, a lot of it is in western South Dakota. Some of those acres are landlocked.”
In explaining why the SDGFP has so few landlocked acres, Roblin said that the states does not buy land if it does not have direct access to it.
“The entire number of acres that we do feel are landlocked in South Dakota are about 280,000. So you have on top of your 194 of federal, almost close to another 86 thousand acres of actual public state land that is also landlocked,” said Robling.
Chip Kimball, Field Manager for the South Dakota BLM, was enthusiastic while discussing the topic, and said the Bureau is currently looking into the matter of public access.
“We’ve recognized for a while that we have, along with many public land areas, we have an issue with direct public access to public lands,” said Kimball. The South Dakota BLM manages approximately 274,000 acres of land, and Kimball says about 50,000 acres of that land does not have direct public access.
“Some of that land is accessible through other agencies’ lands like the state or other federal agencies,” says Kimball, “or with the state walk-in area program, but they don’t have direct public access.”
Kimball says some land is available to the public via section line access. That often requires people to have a GPS with specific geographical information in order to walk the path between sections.
“It’s difficult, especially in some of the more rural areas,” says Kimball. In South Dakota, she states, you have a 66 foot corridor that you can walk down on the section line, which can cause conflict between recreationists and land owners if someone strays off the section line.
Kimball said the BLM is currently in the process of defining public access roads in the state, which may cut down on the number of acres previously thought to be landlocked. Currently they have identified 62 parcels, most of which are less than 40 acres, that are not accessible to the public via section line access, walk-in areas, direct road access, or through other public lands which do have access. This is about 2,500 total acres.
KELOLAND News also spoke briefly with Jessica Sutt, Public Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who told us via email that they manage five National Wildlife Refuges and four Wetland Management Districts in South Dakota.
“Each of these public lands offers varying degrees of seasonal wildlife-dependent recreation in accordance with their respective establishing purpose for wildlife conservation. None of these are known to be landlocked by private lands,” said Sutt.
We also reached out to the U.S. Forest Service to ask about landlocked lands under their jurisdiction, but they were unable to provide specific numbers. A representative of the Forest Service told us that due to current employee vacancies, there was not a Lands Program Specialist on board to discuss the matter, but that they are aware of some landlocked parcels south of Custer, S.D.
The representative also referred us to their interactive visitor map which shows the boundaries between Forest Service and other land. Using the SDGFP estimate of 280,000 total landlocked acres and subtracting the amount of landlocked area managed by the state and the BLM, we estimate that the U.S. Forest Service maintains between 146,000 and 193,000 acres of landlocked public land in the state.
The main issue with landlocked land is that it blocks the public’s access to recreation activities on land that they pay for through taxes. Another issue however, is the ability of agencies to effectively manage these areas. With no legal public access to a parcel of government owned land, legal issues can get murky.
South Dakota House Bill 1140, introduced at the request of the Office of the Governor which would restrict the entry of conservation officers onto certain private land without permission, is currently working its way through the state legislature.
The bill states in part that “no conservation officer may, in the course of performing the duties of a conservation officer, enter any private land unless the conservation officer has the explicit or implied permission of the landowner or lessee.”
The bill carves out three exemptions, saying that a conservation officer can enter onto private land without permission:
- If reasonable suspicion or probable cause exists that a violation of a law that the conservation officer is authorized to enforce has been, is being, or is about to be committed on the private land;
- To dispatch crippled or distressed wildlife the conservation officer has personally and lawfully observed on the private land; or
- To respond to emergency situations, accidents, or other threats to public safety occurring on the private land.
KELOLAND News spoke with South Dakota Rep. Marty Overweg, the Chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, who told us that the bill’s purpose is to bring conservation officer standards up to the same level as other law enforcement officers. He says this bill is not a “poachers bill”, as some have called it; saying instead that the bill works to presume landowners’ innocence by requiring conservation officers to have probable cause to enter private land.
Robling is a proponent of the bill. “South Dakota’s a private land state. 80% of South Dakota is privately owned — they’re the ones raising the vast majority of our wildlife for our residents and visitors to enjoy,” said Robling. “11-40 just requires us, the department, to attain landowner permission before entering private property.” Robling says this is important when building relationships with landowners.
Robling also clarified that this bill would apply not just to state conservation officers, but also federal officers. He says there has not been any specific incident that he is aware of that sparked need for this bill, but that he considers it a good policy.
While legal questions regarding land rights are always being debated, both the state and federal government are working to open up more of these landlocked areas.
“I’m happy to report that actually in the last for years we’ve opened up over 34,000 acres that were landlocked to the public,” says Robling. He says that the department prioritizes opening up this land that the main number one tool is leasing land from private landowners.
The BLM takes a different approach to freeing more of this land. “The BLM has been working for quite some time to identify lands, and prioritize lands that we would like to gain public access to. We have a number of methods of doing that through our organization directly. Some of those options include voluntary easements that private landowners would give the public through their private lands. We can exchange property so that we gain the land that if preventing the public access — and then there’s outright land acquisition, where it’s not an exchange situation, but we’re purchasing property that would provide access to valuable portions of public lands,” says Kimball.
Kimball says the BLM is also working with the SDGFP and other non-governmental organizations to open up land.