According to a study from the Center for Western Priorities, 4m acres of public lands in the Rocky Mountain West (Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico) are considered “landlocked”, blocked off by private landowners who control adjacent properties or roadways. Two million of those landlocked acres are in Montana.
The report notes that “land ownership in the Rocky Mountain West is a quilt of federal, state local, Native American and private lands. The patchwork of owners can make it difficult for the public to access lands without trespassing through private lands.”
And in some pockets that have become havens for the uber-rich – like the Crazy Mountains near Livingston - and politically connected, private landowners have tied up huge tracts of prime recreational public lands.
Kate Kelley, public lands specialist with the Center for American Progress, said while natural resource development like oil and gas threatens access to public lands in the west, a major and less noticed peril in Montana – and to a lesser degree in other states – comes from private landowners blocking public access.
“Where Montana stands out is when it comes to how much public land is essentially inaccessible,” said Kelley. “For Montana, it appears that a very real problem is private landowners – including those coming in from out of state – and their unwillingness to grant access to public lands. It’s essentially locking Montanans out of their backyard.”
The region was built on a snatching land from Native Americans and conflicts have long been present over who owns what and goes where for what purpose.
Gloria Flora, a former US Forest Service manager, explains, “I know this sounds like an odd thing to say, but we’re kind of running out of land.”
Since the 1960s, the population of the Rocky Mountain West has grown at a higher rate than the rest of the United States. States including Idaho and Montana have seen steady population increases in the past 30 years. In other words, this is not a stagnant economic zone lacking for growth. In 1970, Montana’s population was less than 700,000; today it’s more than 1 million. That inward migration has come alongside a shift from an economy based on mining and logging to one based on the service industry. And it’s all brought fast-rising income inequality and an ongoing, roiling culture clash.