Marshall Johnson loves to hunt mule deer.
As regional director of the Mule Deer Federation, Johnson would love to own property with enough cover and watering holes to harbor healthy mule deer herds. But that’s out of the economic reach of many Montanans.
So Johnson values the 35 percent of the state that is public land, where he has the right to hunt or recreate year-round.
The problem is that he is not allowed to exercise that right in many sections that are surrounded by private land.
Last year, Johnson tried to fill his mule deer tag in a hunting district north of Billings and ended up doing an informal survey.
“My brother-in-law and I drove every county road, and found that approximately 64 percent of the (Bureau of Land Management) lands were inaccessible due to being landlocked and approximately 57 percent of the state land was inaccessible. Very frustrating,” Johnson said. “I spoke to six or eight landowners, and none would allow access, not even by foot.”
Public land managers say the issue has worsened over the years.
They’re using the few options they have – bargaining for easements and land swaps – but public access is often elusive. Occasionally, new tools such as monetary incentives appear, but they don’t make a dent in the millions of acres that remain locked up by a minority of private owners.
“If it’s got good wildlife habitat, it’s usually sewn up tight -- if it’s got big game in particular,” said Public Land/Water Association president John Gibson. “With a bull elk worth $15,000, you’re going to get some people playing the economics game.”
If Johnson came to Gallatin County, he’d find plenty of accessible public land, especially south of Interstate 90 where the Gallatin National Forest dominates.
The story is a little different north of the interstate.
With the exception of the national forest in the Bridger Mountains, the only public land exists in 40 isolated sections – 1 square mile each – of state-trust land and a few Bureau of Land Management sections, most of which cannot be accessed through the surrounding private land.
Like other western states, Montana is dotted by isolated public-land sections because of a handful of federal land designations, such as the Pacific Railroad Act of 1864, which tried to encourage the settling of the frontier.
Federal land wound up in a checkerboard arrangement laid over 36 sections in a township-range.
Then the government gave the states only the 16th and 36th sections of every township-range, creating remote islands of school-trust land.
While the strategy helped bring settlers west in the 19th century, it’s a land manager’s headache in the 21st.
In past decades, Montanans had an easier time accessing public-land sections, thanks to gracious landowners and common paths or roads.
But since the 1970s, as Montana’s population and popularity as a place for vacation properties have grown, more landowners have barred public access routes and challenged road and trail easements.
If someone owns an inholding surrounded by federal land, agencies must provide “reasonable access” to the inholding by law. The same is not required of private landowners whose land surrounds public property.
Outdoorsmen complain of fewer places to hunt and recreate, and accuse landowners of using public land for their own gains. But no one knows exactly how much land is locked up.
Shawn Thomas, trust land administrator for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, estimates that about 30 percent of school-trust land -- around 2,350 square miles – is locked up by private landowners, mostly in the eastern part of the state.
“We don’t have an exact answer, and it’s a much more difficult question to answer than people think it might be,” Thomas said.
Federal agencies don’t have any better handle on the number of inaccessible acres, which is why New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich wants federal land managers to inventory their property and post the inaccessible sections as part of his bill, the Hunt Unrestricted on National Treasures Act.
The most recent survey, published in 1992, claimed 50 million acres of federal land was inaccessible nationwide.
Yellowstone district ranger Alex Sienkiewicz said such an inventory would be challenging because access keeps changing.
“We don’t tend to track those numbers because it changes as land is sold and suddenly gates appear,” Sienkiewicz said.
Forest lands manager Bob Dennee is one of the few who has crunched Forest Service numbers because of the 2007 Gallatin National Forest Travel Plan.
About 15 percent or 430 square miles of the entire Gallatin National Forest lacks access, Dennee said, but it’s worse in certain areas.
In the north Bridger Mountains, 40 percent is locked up, while on the east side of the Crazy Mountains, 80 percent lacks access, Dennee said.
“I often refer to that as ‘the last frontier.’ We need to improve our access because we can’t manage those lands,” Dennee said.
BLM spokesman Brad Purdy said the BLM had no good tally for how many sections were locked up. But he knew BLM managers could not get into the six sections in northern Gallatin County.
“We have no authority over private land, so unless we have permission, we cannot access that,” Purdy said. “These little pieces are not only difficult for the public to access but they’re difficult for us to manage.”
To overcome the checkerboard checkmate, federal and state agencies have created special programs.
All agencies have voluntary land-swap programs, which allow them to consolidate public land into larger chunks and, in some cases, procure additional easements.
But such land deals take years because of all the public and agency review required by law.
Montana has a land-bank program that allows the state to be a little more nimble.
The state can sell sections that generate less school-trust money and put the proceeds in the bank. That money is then available to Thomas to buy a more valuable and more accessible section.
But the land-bank program hasn’t existed long enough to change the pattern of trust land much.
In April, a state law was passed creating a program to give landowners a $500 tax credit if they provided access to state land.
Rep. Tom Jacobson’s, D-Great Falls, bill included a Fish, Wildlife & Parks requirement that landowners couldn’t qualify if they didn’t allow public hunting, as is the case with outfitters.
“If you’re profiting from the hunting on your land and you’re not allowing the public to come in, you’re hampering (FWP’s) ability to manage the game,” Jacobson said.
Outfitters can profit, sometimes charging several thousand dollars for elk hunts, and some of that is going on in northern Gallatin County.
Most state land sections have associated grazing or timber permits with payments going to schools.
Thomas said eight state land sections in Gallatin County also have outfitting permits.
Based upon state GIS data, eight state land sections in northern Gallatin County are completely surrounded by property belonging to four owners: the Morgan Land Company, the Climbing Arrow Ranch, the Elk Ridge Partnership and Turner Enterprises.
All four have some connection to outfitters that offer big-game hunts.
None of the owners could be contacted.
If the landowners are using their ranches and the enclosed state lands for outfitted hunts, they aren’t likely to be swayed by $500 to let the public in, even if they did qualify.
Mac Minard, executive director of Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, said they should qualify. Just because they outfit hunts on the land doesn’t mean they wouldn’t allow public access, Minard said.
“It’s important to understand that 70 percent of the MOGA members are large landowners. So in many cases, landowners and outfitters are the same people,” Minard said. “I find it odd that a law would say, ‘Whatever land management practices you’re exercising on your private land is going to dictate whether we’re willing to talk to you about providing a public benefit.’”
After hearing his constituents bemoan the decrease in public access, Jacobson said he wanted to find a process to open up more state land that wasn’t punitive. He also wanted to reward landowners who are willing to allow public access.
Landowners like Les Arthun, one of a dwindling population of ranchers that resists the outfitting trend.
Arthun has enrolled in the block management program for more than a decade, allowing people to hunt on his land near Wilsall and providing access to the state land nearby.
Arthun said it helps him control the game on his ranch, but providing access is equally important.
“As we find in a lot of places in Montana, a piece of private ground where people used to be able to hunt is all the sudden closed up and they put up their signs that say ‘No Trespassing,’” Arthun said. “We provide access for people to come out and enjoy a little of what we have. We’re a ranch and they call us owners, but we’re just here tending it for a while.”