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Sports >  Outdoors

It could be easier for you to find public land if Idaho congressman’s plan passes

Tavis Wenzel climbs Beehive Dome in the Idaho Selkirks on July 4, 2019. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)
Tavis Wenzel climbs Beehive Dome in the Idaho Selkirks on July 4, 2019. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)
By Nicole Blanchard The Idaho Statesman

BOISE – Idaho Rep. Russ Fulcher joined three other members of Congress on Tuesday to introduce a bill that would standardize public land data across the country and potentially make it easier for Idahoans to access federally managed land.

The bill, called Modernizing Access to our Public Land, or MAPLand, was cosponsored in the House by Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Washington, and introduced in the Senate by Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, and Sen. Angus King, D-Maine.

According to a news release from Fulcher’s office, federal land managers don’t have consistent digital records on land ownership.

“The U.S. Forest Service alone has an estimated 37,000 recorded easements, only 5,000 of which have been digitized and uploaded into their electronic database,” the release said.

The MAPLand bill would apply to land managed by the Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and Army Corps of Engineers.

The bill calls on the agencies to make all public land data digitally available within three years of the passage of the legislation. Geographic information system maps of the public land would be available on the agencies’ websites and include information on seasonal access, hunting and shooting regulations and other limitations.

If enacted, the legislation would cost $33.5 million, to be taken from Interior, Agriculture and Army budgets over three years beginning in 2021.

“Sportsmen and outdoor recreationalists have a tremendous impact on our Idaho culture and economy,” Fulcher said in the news release. “I am proud to be introducing the MAPLand Act to modernize information and access to our public lands so Idahoans can utilize these public places.”

What would it mean for Idaho?

In 2018, a study by environmental advocacy group the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and onX, a technology company that creates maps for sportsmen, found 208,000 acres of public land in Idaho were not accessible.

Part of the problem was the lack of consistency in record-keeping among federal agencies, according to GIS experts who worked on the study.

“Part of the need for this has been reflected in a lot of recent access studies, but also just the dialogue around access,” said Joel Webster, senior director of Western lands for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Webster said the agency worked with Fulcher and McSally on the MAPLand bill. He said the bill speeds along the inevitable digitization of crucial records.

“This is something that needs to be done no matter what. The longer we wait, the more opportunities we lose,” he said.

Webster said maps based on federal land data could offer residents new places to recreate, as well as educate the agencies on their own assets.

“(The bill) identifies places where agencies have purchased and recorded access,” Webster said. “It would be really embarrassing if agencies bought access twice. This could help prevent that.

“I guarantee that there are places that have public access where most people in the public are not aware of it, at least in the West. I’m sure there will be some circumstances where … there’s probably some roads that aren’t shown on Forest Service maps that have permanent easements, and that will be interesting to see.”

He added that the goal of the legislation is not to create conflict over historical use easements or private land.

Public land access has been raised as a legislative issue in Idaho at the state level for the past few years, but bills to penalize private landowners who knowingly block public land access have not gained traction during the last two legislative sessions.

Webster said he’s hopeful the MAPLand bill won’t face the same fate.

“It’s got bipartisan support, and it’s got strong stakeholder support,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing that brings Congress together because it’s not a political issue.”

Brian Brooks, director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation conservation group, said he’s impressed with Fulcher for introducing the legislation. Brooks said it could play an important role in clearing up ownership debates around Forest Service roads that have been blocked off by private owners, such as Dan and Farris Wilks. The Texas billionaire brothers have bought hundreds of acres of Idaho land and, in recent years, installed gates on some roads that they claim are private.

“The biggest impediment to hunting, fishing and keeping people from … getting into it is lack of access. Modernizing and digitizing assessments of where vital access points could be or should be, that’s a slam dunk for outdoor enthusiasts, not just hunters and anglers,” Brooks said.

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