Report: More Than 80,000 Acres of Public Land Inaccessible to Hunters, Fishermen

More than 80,000 acres of federal, state, county, and municipal public lands in the Mid-Atlantic are inaccessible to hunters and fishermen, according to a new report from onX Maps and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP).

The three-state report shows 39,000 taxpayer-owned acres in New York, 27,000 in Pennsylvania, and 14,000 in New Jersey that are “landlocked,” or surrounded by private land and not accessible without permission from neighboring private landowners.

“This matters to hunters because they own that public land and they currently cannot get to it,” said Joel Webster, senior director of western programs at TRCP. “This ground is especially important in the East, where 10 acres or so is all you need to set up a treestand and get on deer. There are a bunch of parcels in that size range, already in public hands, that are legally open to hunt or fish, but the public can’t get to.”

This 600-plus-acre parcel of Flat Rock State Forest (marked in diagonal stripes) 10 miles west of New York’s Lake Champlain is surrounded by private holdings with no public trail or road offering access. Image courtesy of onX.

The digital mapping company onX Maps launched in 2009 with a chip for Garmin GPS devices that overlaid county tax maps, showing public and private land ownership right in the device. Overnight, hunters in the West could see where Bureau of Land Management ground crossed a public road, and a Midwest hunter could quickly see who owned that killer woodlot aching for a treestand. In 2013, the onX Hunt app for iPhone and Android devices launched and fast became a must-have piece of kit for any serious hunter or fisher.

In 2018, onX and TRCP harnessed that tech to analyze federal public land in the West and found 9.52 million landlocked acres in 13 states — taxpayer-owned dirt inaccessible without private landowner permission. Next, onX and TRCP looked at state-owned lands in the West and found another 6.35 million acres with no public access. This year they’ve moved east of the Rockies with regional reports on the Upper Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic, with a report on the South due Oct. 21.

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“This year, in particular, is a great demonstration of why we need more access to public lands,” said Lisa Nichols, access advocacy manager at onX. “More and more people are interested in hunting and outdoor sports, and we’re seeing real crowding at places with easy access — especially in the East. The more land we open up, the less crowding we’ll see.”

Anyone who’s been to a state park or public boat ramp in these COVID-19 times knows that much is true. More and more people have taken to the outdoors and flooded into public lands as international travel has shut down and as crowded vacation destinations like urban centers and resorts no longer feel right.

A 200-acre piece of state game land (marked in diagonal stripes) in south-central Pennsylvania is cut off from larger parcels of state forest and game lands by just a few hundred yards of private property. To the north, another 350-plus acres of the Rothrock State Forest are surrounded by private holdings. Image courtesy of onX.

Unlike in the West, where nearly all the land was first federally owned and then turned over to states and private landowners, it’s the opposite in the East. From the Colonial era, pretty much all landholdings were private, chartered to corporations or individuals by the British monarchy. States, counties, and to a lesser extent the federal government eventually bought back land for conservation and resource management. Much of the state land in New York and Pennsylvania came by way of tax defaults on abandoned farmlands or private timberlands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

These little blocks of ground have added up over time. Today in New Jersey, “the state owns 21 percent of the land base within its borders, the third-most of any state behind Alaska and Hawaii. In New York and Pennsylvania, those figures are similarly significant: 14 percent and 13.9 percent respectively, at fifth and sixth place in the nation,” according to the report.

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Of the 80,000 acres in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey that are locked up by private neighbors, 15,000 acres are adjacent to public water. For hunters looking for new ground, this presents a digital scouting challenge. Follow the water, and you may find boat-in access to a new honey hole. Otherwise, onX is not making the GPS info of these landlocked spots publicly available.

The Tuckahoe Wildlife Management Area in New Jersey’s Great Egg Harbor Bay is a popular waterfowl destination, but this 115-acre section (marked in diagonal stripes) cannot be reached by land without permission from a neighboring landowner. Image courtesy of onX.

“We want to respect the privacy of the neighboring private property owners,” Nichols said. “The majority of these places that are landlocked, are landlocked as a product of history. We don’t want to put private property owners in an unfriendly position with the general public. We want them to work with state and local partners to help develop future access.”

As it did in the West, onX is providing federal, state, and local land trust agencies the property information so they can best address potential future access to these landlocked parcels. These kinds of agreements take years to develop, but there’s been some early success already. Last year, Colorado opened 77,000 additional acres of state trust land to hunting and fishing, and Land and Water Conservation Fund dollars opened up more than 13,000 acres of landlocked ground in Oregon. Working with onX and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Wyoming opened up 2.8 million acres in 2019.

In the East, the majority of landlocked acreages are state lands, and state agencies are charged with developing new access. In New York, the Environmental Protection Fund and the Open Space Conservation Plan are charged with working with landowners to develop access. In New Jersey, it’s the Connecting Habitat Across New Jersey program, and the Community Conservation Partnerships Program in Pennsylvania. Thanks to the recent passing of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, these states and others have more than $27 million a year in federal dollars available for public access improvement projects.

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“It’s important for hunters and fishermen to talk to their state natural resources department,” said Webster with TRCP. “We need the states to know that public access is an issue we all care about.”

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