According to a study from the Center for Western Priorities, 4m acres of public lands in the Rocky Mountain West (Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico) are considered “landlocked”, blocked off by private landowners who control adjacent properties or roadways. Two million of those landlocked acres are in Montana.
The report notes that “land ownership in the Rocky Mountain West is a quilt of federal, state local, Native American and private lands. The patchwork of owners can make it difficult for the public to access lands without trespassing through private lands.”
New Montana property owners often arrive wanting their own slice of paradise without knowing the decades of legal battles over public lands and a history of allowing neighbors – sometimes after protracted negotiation through governments and courts – to move through roads and trails. A ranch once open to hunting is suddenly posted as private, hunters ignore the gates and signs, and conflict flares.
And in some pockets that have become havens for the uber-rich – like the Crazy Mountains near Livingston - and politically connected, private landowners have tied up huge tracts of prime recreational public lands.
Kate Kelly, public lands specialist with the Center for American Progress, said while natural resource development like oil and gas threatens access to public lands in the west, a major and less noticed peril in Montana – and to a lesser degree in other states – comes from private landowners blocking public access.
“Where Montana stands out is when it comes to how much public land is essentially inaccessible,” said Kelley. “For Montana, it appears that a very real problem is private landowners – including those coming in from out of state – and their unwillingness to grant access to public lands. It’s essentially locking Montanans out of their backyard.”
“I think this is one of the driving factors to loss of access to public lands – people coming in who don’t necessarily understand Montana values,” said Land Tawney of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a national land conservation group based in Montana.
In a December op-ed in the Washington Post, Bullock criticized Trump’s decision to scale back national monuments, inviting him to Montana and calling public lands a great equalizer. The president’s son Donald Trump Jr appears to already spend significant time hunting in Montana.
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