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Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Offroad App OnX Shows How Access to Public Lands is Increasingly Blocked by Private Landowners

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A backcountry navigation app popular with hunters is exposing how the latest iteration of robber barons is gobbling up private ranchland and effectively blocking access to hunting grounds and publicly-owned wilderness areas. Such consolidation of land wealth effectively robs the American people of access to the public lands and natural resources that have been preserved for everyone to enjoy and utilize. As this is the logical legacy of displacement that began with the forcible removal and genocide of Indigenous people, the best way to reverse course is by returning these spaces to their stewardship.

The U.S. is home to 15 million acres worth of “landlocked” public spaces that cannot be accessed due to the private land that borders their entirety, the New York Times reports. While a lot of private ranchers have allowed hunters through in the past, many had come to see these spaces as extensions of their own. Those permissions that did exist are disappearing, however, and the entitlement to gatekeep public lands is increasing as ranching families abandon agriculture altogether and sell their land off to corporations and tycoons. 

While on the surface this transition might look like the sad but inevitable course of capitalism as the next generation pursues their right to self-determination, it’s important to remember how that land got into private hands in the first place. The Homestead Act of 1862 sold off 160-acre parcels for just $10 to anyone financially able and willing to move westward and displace the people already living there. And while standard American history might promote the fallacy that these spaces were only meagerly inhabited at the time, in truth North America was likely home to just as many people as Europe was at the time. 

Nor was the American West a sweeping, unbridled wilderness. Indigenous people actively managed great expanses of land prior to colonization, controlling wildfires and engineering the landscape to promote species propagation and migration. “A lot of what we think of as wilderness was a temporary artifact of the depopulation of the native people—it was a major crash,” Arizona State University Professor Stephen Pyne told the History Channel, referring to the European diseases that wiped out an estimated 70 to 90 percent of the Indigenous population.

It’s within this framework that generations of predominantly white families were able to pass down land wealth in the West until, eventually, they grow tired of working that land and looked to lease or sell it off to the highest bidder. And those highest bidders are increasingly made up of corporate holdings and wealthy entrepreneurs who are blocking off all access to “landlocked” state and federal land and, in turn, the fish and game resources that are present there. 

That’s where OnX comes into play. The app is a GPS mapping system made for people who prefer to go off the beaten path. It is particularly popular with hunters since it paints a clear picture of who owns what and whether land is public or private. But that feature also exposes just how much state and federal land can’t be reached by the general public.

It also inspired a group of hunters to attempt to access Elk Mountain — a parcel of “landlocked” wilderness in Wyoming that is teeming with game — through a technique called corner-crossing. The resulting $7 million lawsuit could have far-reaching implications as pharmaceutical tycoon Fred Eshelman attempts to make an example out of the hunters who were able to access those public lands in spite of his attempts to keep them out of the area. Eshelman, whose net worth grew from $8.43 million in 2018 to an estimated $201 million as of Dec. 15 of this year, purchased his 50-acre ranch that acts as a barrier to a lot of Elk Mountain back in 2005. Although a hunter himself, the multi-millionaire has been adamant about barring others. 

Joel Webster, vice president at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, told the New York Times: “If you go back a few decades, it was a lot easier for the public to go knock on the door and get access to private land. Generally, the people who owned the land had roots in that community — they went to church together, they went to school together, they grew up together. And if you want to access my place, that’s fine, just let me know — that kind of thing.”

Not anymore. As public lands activist Hal Herring also told the Times, “Hunting has become big business.” Instead of letting hunters pass through, many of these new landowners are offering their own hunting expeditions with five-figure prices on a sole head of elk.

Not only does the commodification of hunting strip hunters of access to recreation and food resources, but it also removes people further from public lands. By barring access to these wilderness areas, proper forest and wildfire management is impossible. Essentially, if it can’t be reached, it can’t be cared for. From a land stewardship perspective, this situation is irresponsible and dangerous — likely contributing to the prevalence of mega-fires in the West.

Instead of allowing land tycoons to scoop up everything west of the Mississippi, the environmental and equitable solution is to return stewardship to the tribes who originally managed the area. While not an easy process, it is the federal government's responsibility to begin reinstating ancestral lands and — as ranching families leave agriculture — the opportunity is there to buy their land back in order to do so.

Image credit: Sergei A/Unsplash

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of Baja California Sur, México. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.

Read more stories by Riya Anne Polcastro