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Hunters, hikers and anglers can't access millions of acres of public land 

click to enlarge The Forest Service owns a portion of road near an unofficial trail, raising the question of whether Palmer Lake can regulate parking. (Not drawn to scale.) - NO CREDIT
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  • The Forest Service owns a portion of road near an unofficial trail, raising the question of whether Palmer Lake can regulate parking. (Not drawn to scale.)

The days of Wild West battles over property ownership ended long ago. But the patchwork manner in which Western states were settled has led to 21st-century tensions — this time between outdoors enthusiasts and private property owners — over who should have access to public land.

The crux of the problem: Private lands completely surround some public lands, providing no public entry point. (In rarer cases, public lands can even be legally off-limits to the public.)

A recent study by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) and onX sheds new light on how widespread the problem has become. Researchers mapped 13 Western states with technology supplied by onX, a mapping service for hunters, hikers and anglers that identifies which lands are legal to access for recreational purposes. They discovered 9.52 million acres of taxpayer-funded public land — an area larger than New Hampshire and Connecticut combined — that the public cannot legally enter because they're surrounded by private property. (The study didn't take into account the generosity of individual landowners, who may choose to grant easements but aren't legally or permanently bound to do so.)

In Colorado, there are 269,000 total landlocked acres of public land, many of which are in the northwestern portion of the state and administered by the Bureau of Land Management. Many of these parcels went to the BLM because their terrain was unsuitable for farming and were later surrounded by private settlements, says Joel Webster, director of TRCP's Center for Western Lands. The largest landlocked parcel, according to onX spokesperson Doug Stuart, covers 5,286 acres in Moffat and Rio Blanco counties.

While it sounds like a lot, Colorado's numbers don't make the state exceptionally restrictive — Wyoming holds more than 3 million landlocked acres, according to the report. But Colorado has another challenge: a rare policy that blocks public access to a certain kind of state public land, marking an additional 2.5 million acres off-limits.

While it's possible that future federal or state laws or deals could intervene and allow access, those who don't want to wait are finding ways to grant access to landlocked parcels now through a simpler process — bridge-building with neighbors.

But that can be trickier than it sounds, as evidenced by the situation in Palmer Lake.

Palmer Lake, a mountain town about 30 minutes northwest of Colorado Springs, tends to be the type of place people go to for peace and quiet, surrounded by evergreens and nestled around a placid lake. But it's lately been embroiled in a land use battle that has led to an emotional tug-of-war among locals. Like many recent access fights, this one began with better mapping technology, which led more and more people to a previously little-known path.

Open Google Maps and search for "Limbaugh Canyon Trailhead." The location that pops up sits at the end of an unpaved country road in Palmer Lake. Never mind that it's not officially a trailhead, just a well-traveled path that leads to a popular hiking track. A handful of generously sized homes, partially hidden among the dense conifers, each sit on an acre or so of land a stone's throw from the road. The path itself runs adjacent to a private drive, and leads south into the woods.

The end of the street and the trail access point are on National Forest Service land and are accessible to the public, but farther south, the hiking track crisscrosses private land owned by a California resident, according to the El Paso County Assessor's Office. (The Forest Service could not be reached for input because of the federal government shutdown.)

The owner of one of the homes near the trail, who we'll call Sarah (she asked that her name not be used, for personal safety reasons), says hikers have been parking in her cul-de-sac for the 27 years she's lived there. But in recent years, the number of visitors has grown, she says, and far more of those visitors now choose to park in front of her driveway or trespass on her property.

"It's gotten so bad that I just don't know what to do," she says. "I didn't pay the money I did and buy that paradise to have it ruined. Because I feel it's been ruined, for me."

In the fall, when another popular area hiking spot, the Palmer Lake Reservoir Trail, was closed — driving even more visitors to the Limbaugh Canyon trail — things finally got bad enough that the Palmer Lake Police Department took action.

Palmer Lake Police Chief Jason Vanderpool says that in response to complaints from a resident, the department placed several boulders, the largest of which were about 5 feet in length, in spots at the end of the road where people had been parking their cars before hopping on the trail. Vanderpool said the town had hoped to reduce congestion problems and keep people from blocking private driveways. Officers even issued a few warnings (but no tickets) to drivers whose vehicles were parked on the street.

click to enlarge Boulders blocked parking. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Boulders blocked parking.

The problem? Palmer Lake doesn't own the end of the road where the boulders were placed; the Forest Service does. And trail-access advocates, who argued that enforcing parking therefore wasn't within the town's jurisdiction, say it's unfair to bar hikers from accessing a trail they've used for years.

Among them is Carissa Gallardo, an area resident who led efforts to get Palmer Lake to remove the boulders. "It was a little street and a little point of access, but in my mind it represents ... so much more," she says.

Gallardo figured, as did Sarah, that more people were visiting the unofficial trailhead because it was posted on numerous hiking websites. She also says the Reservoir Trail's closure and search parties looking for a missing hiker in early September may have contributed to more traffic than usual in the fall.

Gallardo organized a Facebook group for trail advocates hoping to reopen parking access and helped produce materials to distribute to Palmer Lake Town Council members that explained the history of the issue and who owned the land.

The group's immediate objective, says area resident and fellow activist Bryan Christensen, was to "restore the status quo." He and Gallardo argued that it was rare for more than four cars to park near the access point before the boulders were placed. And they said parking signage to keep people from blocking driveways would be a better solution than barriers.

Trail advocates have also discussed rerouting part of the hiking track to make sure it doesn't cross east onto the private land south of the access point.

On Dec. 14, about three months after the boulders were initially placed at the end of the road, the town of Palmer Lake removed them. Town Administrator Catherine Green-Sinnard said at a meeting in December that the town had purchased signs showing people where to park, but had not placed them yet.

The resolution "speaks to the town manager's willingness to listen," says Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition. "It just truly is a microcosm of what's happening throughout Colorado. You know, as we grow in population and popularity, we're going to have these conflicts... In this case, we have a fairly happy ending."

A few days after the boulders were removed, Vanderpool said that the problem was resolved, that advocates were "making a mountain out of a molehill" and that the Forest Service had simply asked the town to place the boulders while they figured out how to solve the parking problem.

But despite the city's effort to portray this as a happy ending, not everyone was pleased. Sarah says no town officials informed her that the boulders were being removed, though they were placed there at her request.

click to enlarge A "missing" sign hangs near the trailhead. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • A "missing" sign hangs near the trailhead.

She says some hikers have sworn at her when she asked them not to block her driveway, others let their dogs run unleashed on her property, and still others stumble, apparently intoxicated, down the trail. "If they don't put the boulders back, I'm going to keep going to the city until they return them," she says. "Because people do not respect the fact that that's a neighborhood. It's not a trail. It's a trail they've created on their own."

Gallardo says she knocked on Sarah's door twice, but wasn't able to reach her.

Following resident complaints, Green-Sinnard scheduled a meeting for February with property owners, trail advocates, the Forest Service and town representatives to discuss trail access.

Gallardo says she hopes discussions will lead to a "middle ground" that doesn't involve blocking access. She wants the Friends of Monument Preserve, which helps maintain the nearby Mount Herman area, to also work on maintaining trail signage at the Limbaugh Canyon Trail and make sure hikers are aware of proper etiquette.

Webster, director of the Center for Western Lands at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the organization behind the public lands study, called the Palmer Lake issue "a reflection of technology creating increased awareness about where public lands are in a way that was previously more difficult."

"However," he adds, "it also gives [the public] no excuse when it comes to trespassing. Because they should know exactly where they are and they should know how to not trespass."

That said, conflicts such as these aren't going anywhere. Webster notes that better mapping leads to an increased sense of injustice, as outdoor enthusiasts realize how much public land remains inaccessible to them, particularly in rural areas.

In Colorado, an outdated policy for the state's 3 million acres of state trust lands acts as one of the biggest culprits behind blocked access. These lands were granted to the State Land Board by the federal government in the 1800s.

"Colorado is the only remaining state in the West that does not allow public access on most state trust lands," Webster says.

In fact, Tim Brass, state policy and field operations director for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, says that out-of-state sportsmen who are used to easy access to state trust lands in places like Wyoming, Idaho and Montana often become confused by Colorado's laws.

"I think a lot of people get here and they're surprised," Brass says. "They'll look at a map and see a bunch of blue chunks [representing state trust lands] and just assume it is open to the public."

More frustrating: Inaccessible state trust lands sometimes surround federal public lands where access is supposedly legal, but impossible without an easement.

In Colorado, state trust lands are leased for a variety of purposes, such as oil and gas production, grazing and recreation. The money goes to public schools and other institutions. But that was supposed to change. In 1992, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the State Land Board signed an agreement committing to open 50 percent of state trust lands to the public. Still, today only about 500,000 acres are open for hunting and fishing. Brass says that's partly because "people haven't been mobilized and advocating for access" to the land, much of which is on Colorado's Eastern Slope.

Brass' organization backed legislation in 2016 that would have created a $5 surcharge on hunting and fishing licenses to open access to the trust lands while still providing funding for public schools, similar to programs in other Western states. While the group had secured a sponsor from both major parties in the state House, the legislation was never formally introduced.

Brass believes that a new agreement between CPW and the Land Board could eventually open the land for public use. But first, there needs to be greater awareness of Colorado's policy on state trust lands: "Outside of the sportsmen community, it's really not a well-known issue."

Meanwhile, on a national level, TRCP argues that fixing access problems will require reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal program started in 1964 that funded habitat conservation and public land expansion — until lawmakers failed to renew it in September. That's because the biggest challenge for public agencies is having "the funding and staffing capacity" to negotiate access agreements with private landowners, says Nick Payne, TRCP's Colorado representative and leasing policy specialist. And that's difficult while the fund is in limbo.

But while advocates for access wait for large-scale change, they're working on the local level now. Often, that means sitting down for coffee with an individual property owner to figure out how the public can access their land without causing a disturbance.

In the desolate grasslands of eastern Colorado, where a hunter might approach a ranch owner to grant access to prime public hunting grounds, that conversation might be a little different than in Palmer Lake, where property owners insist heavy traffic and trespassing are a problem. But the idea — an extended hand, a give-and-take that benefits all parties — is the same.

"There seems to be this intensifying conflict between ... public land users and private landowners over access to public lands in and around those private lands, and it doesn't need to be a conflict," TRCP's Webster says. "We shouldn't be picking a fight with them — because ultimately people are just going to dig in, and it's going to just make it harder to address the issue."

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