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Sports >  Outdoors

Film highlights challenges regarding landlocked public property

Jason Matzinger prepares to load up for a helicopter ride into landlocked public acreage as part of his film ,“#ProjectLandlocked.” The film examines the issue of landlocked public acreage as well as some of the solutions.  (Jason Matzinger, courtesy photo)
Jason Matzinger prepares to load up for a helicopter ride into landlocked public acreage as part of his film ,“#ProjectLandlocked.” The film examines the issue of landlocked public acreage as well as some of the solutions. (Jason Matzinger, courtesy photo)
By Brett French Billings Gazette

BILLINGS – With many hunting seasons started and many more starting in the West, Bozeman filmmaker Jason Matzinger unveiled a new movie on hunting landlocked sections of public property. The movie is likely to stimulate campfire conversations.

“Not all public land is available to the populace,” Matzinger said in a news release. “In the United States, there are massive amounts of public land completely surrounded by private lands, making the public lands private by default. It’s landlocked.”

Titled “#ProjectLandlocked,” the 38-minute free online film examines the controversy and conundrum presented by the estimated 16.43 million acres of public land that are inaccessible in 22 states.

This is equivalent to the entire state of West Virginia or seven Yellowstone National Parks. Montana is in the top tier for states with landlocked acreage, totaling 3.09 million acres, surpassed only by Wyoming with 4.16 million inaccessible acres.

“Jason was really interested in bringing the reports to light to a new audience that isn’t reading reports,” said Molly Stoecklein, senior communications manager for onX.

Tech

Missoula-based onX, a digital mapping company founded in 2010, was one of several partners involved in the making of “#ProjectLandlocked.” Others included the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

The company provides maps downloadable to GPS and smartphones that identify land ownership. Creation of such handheld mapping devices has revolutionized outdoor recreation by providing hunters, hikers and other outdoor recreationists the ability to see real-time land ownership information.

As onX has grown, the company also sees the access issue as important to its continued existence. In 2018 it worked with TRCP to make the first assessment of landlocked acreage, expanding to include state lands in the calculations the following year and by 2020 aiming at acreage in eastern states.

“All of this was because hunters started getting involved and interested in the public lands issue,” said Lisa Nichols, access advocacy manager for onX.

The work also coincided with discussions at the federal and state level about states taking over management of federal lands, a controversial issue.

Since 2018, onX has devoted a portion of its annual sales to improving access and recreation opportunities on public lands. Through its Access + Stewardship Grants, the company is supporting the efforts of land trusts, conservation nonprofits, agencies and trail associations by providing grants.

Checkerboard

In his film, Matzinger uses onX technology to helicopter into a landlocked parcel of public land to archery hunt elk, an activity he claimed other blue collar hunters could take advantage of if they pool their money. A quick check of helicopter services in the area shows an hour of flight on a four-person copter starts at about $850 an hour.

Checkerboard acreage and landlocked public lands have become a flash point for controversy between access advocates and landowners.

Public lands across the West are often found in these checkerboard patterns thanks to the legacy of the U.S. government providing railroads with land grants to compensate for the cost of building rail lines across the country in the 1800s.

State school trust lands are another relic of the settlement of the West.

When entering the union, the federal government gave states entire sections of land, each section is 640 acres, to support public education and schools.

Checkerboarding in places like the Crazy Mountains in Montana has highlighted the challenge agencies like the U.S. Forest Service have to find ways to improve access, either through rerouting trails or conducting land trades to deal with the century-old problem.

Corners

The film also draws attention to the controversial issue of corner crossing, moving from one corner of public land to another where they intersect.

Randy Newberg, the Bozeman-based host of the hunting series “Fresh Tracks with Randy Newberg,” said in the film that he’s backed away from the controversy surrounding corner crossing, despite vocal support of a bill in the 2013 Montana Legislature that sought to enshrine the activity in law.

At the time, advocates said corner crossing would provide access to about 800,000 acres in Montana.

“Every attorney has told me this does represent civil trespass,” Newberg said in the film. “As someone who believes strongly in our constitution, someone who believes property rights are absolutely paramount to the society, the economy, the way of life that we’ve built, I can’t bring myself to do it. I have that much respect for private property rights.

“If we’re willing to take shortcuts … we’ve probably done more damage to our cause than we have to the benefit of what we’re trying to do. And I know it’s a long game, and I know it’s frustrating, but we have to do it and we have to do it right. Because we hold out that we the public, we respect private property rights and we want our public property rights to be respected. You can’t have one without the other.”

Conservation fund

The film’s guests advocate for use of funding provided by the Land and Water Conservation Fund to enhance public access for outdoor recreation.

That’s something the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has supported for the past 30 years, finding key parcels of land that can provide access to larger tracts of public ground, often working in partnership with agencies like the Forest Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the Bureau of Land Management.

One example was negotiating the purchase and transfer of 620 acres in 2019 along the Rocky Mountain Front. The property was surrounded on three sides by federal land.

In 2013, the foundation purchased a 40-acre parcel in the Big Snowy Mountains that provided access to 18,000 acres of forest land. The group then sold the land to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

Joel Webster, vice president for Western Conservation for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said that money provided through the conservation fund isn’t the answer to all of the landlocked lands issues, but he said it does provide one tool to increase hunter access.

Another way to assist in the effort would be for Congress to pass the MAPLand Act, legislation that would provide funding for federal agencies like the BLM and Forest Service to digitize their public land access information, such as easements.

“There are thousands of easements still on paper,” Webster said. “The only way we can determine if routes are open to the public is by pulling them out of filing cabinets.”

“The issue of landlocked public lands is not going to be solved with a single solution, we need sort of a multi-pronged approach,” said Nichols, of onX, in the film.

“We do need a lot of organizations and agencies and local communities all working together.”

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