Public Access on Public Land – Should it be Regulated?

Public access to public lands has been and will be a heated discussion until the end of time. Determining the correct level of public access to any public land (quality or not), can be thought of from many sides. Achieving a balance of public right of entry with critical habitats need to be a land manager’s priority, ordinarily. However, as the law is now, some sites are not accessible to the public because it is surrounded by private lands with no easement access. Considerations land managers need to address with regards to public access are:  the rarity of the site, the demand for public access, and surrounding property ownership.

There are some public lands that are of such rarity, possibly containing the last known habitat for a T (threatened) or E (endangered) species, that public access would disrupt the area. When an area has been confirmed to have a T&E species within the habitat, public access needs to be limited, or denied. Research with some rare ground-breeding birds has found that foot paths needed to be of such distance from the breeding area, that there can’t be a compromise.

Some organizations have found through public awareness of T&E species and their habitats, these area’s can be protected, and public access denied favorably. The National Wildlife Federation pours large amounts of donations towards the awareness of T&E species, with much success.

Public access to public lands can benefit a restoration or mitigation via increased tax dollars through compromise. Residents of South Kingstown, Rhode Island were surveyed regarding issues such as wetland areas and public access. Residents were more apt to pay double for an area with public access over a natural wetland that was larger and cheaper. Land managers need to keep public access and public compromise in mind when funds are necessary to the projected plan.

Another issue is there are many acres of public land, inaccessible to the public because of surrounding private land. Though the public owns public land, it is trespassing to use private property to access it. Landowners that are adjacent to public lands have legitimate concerns including: vandalism, gates left open, fire danger, potential liabilities, and loss of livestock when access is allowed.

Saguaro National Park and the X-9 Ranch have had a long and colorful history. Access to one of the parks ranger stations inadvertently got cut off (no easement) about the same time the private X-9 ranch was being put into operation (1955). Shortly after the discovery of this, the disputes began. Hunting accidents and gates being left open (both resulting in lost cattle), and personal threats fueled the disagreement. Currently, access to the station and surrounding areas are allowed to rangers and people with special permission only.

Restorationists could possibly take advantage of this situation when the area’s potential plan and public access do not correlate. If an agreement can be had between adjacent property owners and restorationists, a win-win situation could be had for them, aside from the public with access needs. The point: areas without public access can be restored with less chance of loss to human damage.

Land managers have many considerations with regards to public access. Rarity of the site, the demand for public access, and if access is even available to the site, have to be assessed and will affect the final plan for the area.

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