In recent years, access to public lands has become both a subject of national controversy and a key reason people flock to Colorado. The federal government owns about 35 percent of the state’s nearly 67 million acres, the vast majority of which are open to the public for recreation. Each year, millions of hikers, bikers, hunters, and anglers explore Colorado’s public lands, and the state has developed a reputation for protecting public access—part of the reason it won the bid for the coveted Outdoor Retailer trade shows back in 2017.

However, large parcels of federally owned land in the Centennial State are “landlocked,” according to a study by the nonprofit Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) and onX, a Montana-based GPS mapping company that supports outdoorsman and women across the country. About 269,000 acres in total were found to be inaccessible, generally because they’re surrounded entirely by private property (so someone seeking access would be forced to risk trespassing). Of the nearly 300,000 acres, about 84 percent is land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Inspiration for the report came when Joel Webster, director of TRCP’s Center for Public Lands, and onX founder Eric Siegfried traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with Department of Interior officials about land access issues in the West. Webster and Siegfried’s teams then used onX data to isolate parcels of public land—owned by federal agencies including the U.S. Forest Service, BLM, Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—that are wholly enclosed by private-land holdings. They found that 9.52 million acres across 13 western states are blockaded.

“It’s not something that anyone had ever really done,” Webster says.  “[It’s] a comprehensive look at how expansive the problem really was.”

The largest landlocked parcel in Colorado is 5286.3 acres and sits about 50 miles north of Rifle, but according to the research team, there are approximately 54,000 inaccessible acres within 100 miles of Denver. Compared to the amount of acreage in Colorado that the public can access, these landlocked parcels might seem insignificant on first look. But for intrepid hunters and anglers in particular, lack of access to these lands—most of which have no formal trails or established routes—is extremely frustrating, especially during a time when trails across the state are overcrowded and under strain.

“There’s a growing appetite among the public to find new and additional places where they can recreate,” Webster says. “These are places that the public already owns.” 

To understand how so much public land became inaccessible, you must consider westward expansion during the late 1800s, particularly the Homestead Act of 1862 and the evolution of the transcontinental railroad systems. During and after the Civil War, the federal government allowed any adult citizen who had never borne arms against the nation to claim 160 acres of surveyed government land—most of which was west of the Mississippi River. Compounding the impact of homesteaders, the feds gave railroad companies every other parcel of land along railroad corridors, creating what is known as a “checkerboard” pattern of ownership. The railroads sold much of that land to private citizens, thus enclosing millions of acres of federally owned land.

“It happened by accident,” Webster says. “[Access issues] back then were not a consideration.”

It’s easy to look back and blame the government’s lack of foresight, but as Webster explains, homesteaders, railroad companies, and federal agencies 150 years ago were not considering how private land ownership might impact the hunters and anglers of the 21st century. “Now, we look back on it and think, what a terrible idea,” he says. “But, it was just a product of its time.”

Land trust and conservation organizations across the West, like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), are working with federal, state, and local governments, as well as with private property owners to mitigate the problem. According to Jennifer Doherty, director of lands at RMEF, lack of public access can lead to conflicts between private property owners and hunters, and can also diminish the health of wildlife populations when herds of elk, for instance, grow too large.

But opening up access, of course, is not simple. Doherty says her organization works in several ways to do it, including establishing easements through private property to get to public land, negotiating access agreements on private ranches (so that the public can cross), and in some cases purchasing small parcels of private land that will open large swaths of federally owned acreage. For instance, last January, RMEF worked with the BLM, Bass Pro Shops, and a “conservation-minded” landowner to acquire a 28-acre parcel in the San Luis Valley that will open 8,500 acres of federal land for outdoor recreation.

While TRCP/onX report will help conservationists create access, the effort to reintegrate public lands could be hindered by the non-renewal of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). The LWCF was established in 1965 and has provided nearly $4 billion for protecting public lands and waters over the past five decades. The fund expired in September, and folks like Webster are imploring Congress to reauthorize it by the end of the year. The LWCF is the primary tool to solve the problem of inaccessible public land, Webster says, and “if leadership would just give it a vote, it would pass.” 

Still, even if the LWFC is renewed and organizations are able to open up more federal land, residents of Colorado face a hurdle in the form of state trust lands—state-owned land designated for revenue generation through practices like mineral, oil, and gas production, farming, and ranching. Of the the nearly three million acres of state trust land in Colorado, 880,000 acres (or 32 percent) are open to the public for recreation. According to Webster, this makes Colorado unique, as other western states have opened up most of their state trust land for outdoor recreation. To be clear, state trust land is different from established state parks or recreation areas, but the lack of  access to roughly two million additional state-owned acres makes Colorado’s situation more extreme than the TRCP/onX report indicates. However, a spokesperson said the State Land Board has been “significantly increasing recreation leases in recent years.”

Despite enormous swaths of inaccessible land in Colorado, conservationists looking to the future can be encouraged by the increased awareness of public land issues in the West. As companies like Patagonia express their discontent with current policies and more people seek new spaces to recreate, the fight to open up and protect land is gaining momentum. “I think things are getting better because it’s such a topic of conversation,” Doherty says.  “The noise around public access has gotten loud.”

Editor’ note 12/18/18: This story has been updated to include the most recent data—880,000 acres—about Colorado state trust land that is open for recreation. The story previously cited 500,000 acres. 

Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard is a Denver-based writer and a former editor on 5280's digital team.