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Enhancing Access to BLM-managed Public Lands

By Jamie E. Connell, State Director - BLM Montana/Dakotas

As the days grow shorter and the weather cools, thoughts turn to fall colors, football, and, of course, hunting! Our agency, the Bureau of Land Management, has hunting covered.  Under our multiple-use mandate, the BLM manages 8.3 million acres in the states of Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota, much of which is open to hunting and shooting activities.

Public lands are unique to our country and something we should all be proud of as Americans. Enhancing public access to public lands is one of my Top 10 priorities as State Director and, to further that, I established an internal Access Board in 2011. Its charter is to pursue opportunities to increase public access to public lands. Montana's checkerboard pattern of ownership can leave travelers unsure of land ownership, and there are BLM parcels that have no available public access.

In addition, there are several Montana/Dakotas examples where access to historically available public lands has been blocked. One such example is the Bullwhacker road within the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. A change in ownership, following a legal determination that a portion of the Bullwhacker road was privately owned, resulted in a loss of road access to more than 50,000 acres of public lands. The Mabee Road north of Roy is another such example that resulted in the loss of public access to over 10,000 acres of BLM-managed lands. While we respect private land rights we also recognize the public interest in regaining the loss of access and establishing new public access where opportunities arise. We pursue new access routes by acquiring easements, through land exchanges where possible, or new road construction across BLM-managed land where there are no other options available. In this process, there’s always some “give and take” so I ask you to be flexible. Know that any land exchange the BLM enters into must have a resounding benefit for the public, and that it will be an open and transparent process in which the public can participate.

Meanwhile, acquiring legal public access can be a challenge, especially with our shrinking and uncertain resources, but the BLM is making progress. For example, we have some agreements with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation that allow for reciprocal access and the exchange of rights-of-way; we hope to expand that effort across all of our field offices. In the past 5 years, we have completed 24 realty transactions resulting in 34,773 acres of new public land access. As a result, this has improved access to an additional 20,760 acres of both federal and state lands. In the process, we’ve also improved access to the Upper Missouri Wild and Scenic River, the Chain of Lakes, and the Garnet National Winter Recreation Trail.

As you’re out and about enjoying your public lands, remember to always respect private property. Pick up your trash and maybe even someone else’s, leave gates as you find them, and stay on roads and trails. I know that some of our best natural resource conservationists and public land advocates are hunters; I’m one myself. But no matter who you are or what your passion may be, please stay engaged in helping us to enhance public land access. We can’t do this alone – partnerships, perseverance, and patience are key. The BLM, working with you and other interested publics, will continue to identify and pursue opportunities to improve public access to public lands as part of our multiple-use mission. Be safe out there, and I look forward to reporting back to you on our partnerships and the progress made.