Wisconsin’s landlocked public lands

Land is an incredibly valuable asset because it’s the one thing you can’t make more of.

Without the right land, fishing, hunting, and hiking opportunities largely cease to exist.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Badger State is home to over 7 million acres of public land that is available for hunting and/or fishing.

In the early 1990s, Wisconsin ranked No. 20 among all states in public land access, with over 18 percent of its total land open to hunting, fishing, hiking, etc.

Though there is evidence to suggest that percentage has declined over the years to something closer to 14 or 15 percent, Wisconsin continues to rank in the top half of all states in available hunting acres per person by a fairly significant margin.

However, a study released by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership in late 2020 revealed that as many as 55,000 acres of public land in our state are landlocked. 28,000 of those acres are owned by the state. 24,000 are owned by counties and municipalities, and 3,000 are controlled by the federal government.

Essentially, these parcels of land cannot be legally accessed by the general public. Though as many as 16,000 acres are adjacent to water.

This problem spans well outside of Wisconsin. In fact, since 2018, the TRCP has identified 16.43 million acres of landlocked public land across 22 states.

How did we get here?

To make a long story short, early in its statehood, Wisconsin received federal land grants. This land was to be used for public benefit by serving as properties for things like state parks, institutions, farmland, and schools.

Eventually, some of this land was forfeited back to the state. The DNR eventually started purchasing these properties. In some instances, this land helped protect important habitats, in others it helped generate revenue or provided other wildlife management opportunities.

These were noble, well-intentioned efforts. Unfortunately, the patchwork nature of the available land put us in the position we find ourselves in today.

Why is this a problem?

The clearest issue surrounding landlocked public land is that in some way, shape, or form the general public pays for these parcels but can’t use them.

This is an enormous conflict that basically awards landowners who neighbor these properties free private land.

While there is something to be said for using public land as defacto wildlife refuges, it can be difficult to drum up support for funding lands that can’t be utilized by those who foot the bill.

Accessibility is important because access to quality land is one of the top barriers to retaining existing hunters and recruiting new ones. It’s hard to get excited about hunting if you don’t have anywhere to go or if the nearest hunting land is a substantial drive away.

With the overall availability of public hunting and fishing land on the decline, it is important that the existing land is accessible as possible. Especially since most, if not all, of these properties are at least partially funded by revenue generated through license sales. If the number of anglers and hunters declines, so does the funding.

A decrease in active sportsmen and women can also have negative implications on the larger economy. Fewer people on the water or in the woods means less spending on supplies, equipment, and even lodging.

And while our state continues to do slightly better than most in providing land for public use, the issue of quality will always remain.

Some of the available public lands in Wisconsin aren’t conducive to quality hunting opportunities due to lack of size, habitat, and pressure. Other parcels are closed to hunting entirely and don’t contain waterways for fishing, either.

Freeing up some of the landlocked public lands can potentially be a step forward in alleviating this issue.

The solutions

So what can be done to improve this situation?

Thankfully, there are many conservation organizations whose work involves tackling the issue of public land access.

One of the objectives of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program is to expand opportunities for outdoor recreation. Last year, the program was given a budget of roughly $32 million annually over the next four years to help achieve its goals.

Organizations like Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, and Pheasants Forever also strive to help acquire and maintain access to lands that can be utilized by the public.

Some aid is coming from the federal government too. In the second half of 2020, the Great American Outdoors Act, the Land and Water Conservation Fund passed congress with bi-partisan support.

This is tabbed to provide $27 million each year for enhanced public access. But it is important to note that it is likely only a small fraction of that will make its way to Wisconsin.

But make no mistake, this will be a continued battle in the years to come and there are steps you can take to help keep things moving forward:

Support organizations that prioritize public land access with time or financial donations.

Reach out to your local elected officials and ensure they are aware of this issue and press them on how they are working toward solutions. (The TRCP will even help.)

Give feedback to the Wisconsin DNR about land access struggles by participating in the many public commentary opportunities they provide.

Report land access opportunities with this handy tool created by onX.

Together, we can help shape a future that provides a higher level of outdoor recreation opportunities.

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