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Our favorite stories about public lands and opportunities for you to get involved in protecting your outdoor experiences.


The Real Differences Between Recreating on State and Public Land

Hilary Eisen, Winter Wildlands

Photo credit:  Hunter Day

Photo credit: Hunter Day

Public lands across the country are at risk of being transferred to state governments.  The biggest risk with state lands is that they are no longer public, and will be under intense pressure for development or could be sold off to balance state budgets. In the best case scenarios, states keep these lands open to the public, but even then, what could this mean for outdoor recreation and access?

Because each state manages their lands differently we decided to take a look at one: Montana.  The Montana legislature has been somewhat disjointed on the subject of public lands this session – on one hand a bill to designate March 1 as Public Lands Day is moving forward, while at the same time a resolution that undercuts public involvement in public land management has advanced. The CEO of the anti-public lands group the American Lands Council serves in the Montana state legislature but Governor Bullock is a public lands champion with a strong pro-public lands agenda and his office is working to establish an Office of Outdoor Recreation.  Under the Governor’s leadership, the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) has made an effort to align its recreation use and access policies with federal policy but even still, distinct differences remain between state and federal policy on recreation. 

Montana, like all western states, is required to manage its state trust lands to generate maximum revenue for the state’s public schools.  This is because the federal government granted these lands to the states for the purpose of generating income for public schools and other public institutions at the time of statehood.  This original granting of public land occurred under the Enabling Act, which mandated that the lands, along with their proceeds and income, would be held in trust for the beneficiaries and that fair market value must be obtained if the lands are sold or exchanged, or if is granted through issuance of a lease, license or easement if that use has a compensable value. Because recreational use has been determined to have a compensable value, the state must change a fee.  In short, on federal public lands recreation is subsidized (by activities like development and minimal taxpayer contribution—on average about $5 a year), and on state lands you pay for the privilege. 

A number of state agencies manage land in Montana, with the major players being the DNRC, Fish Wildlife and Parks, and the Department of Corrections.   Each agency manages its lands differently but because DNRC manages the majority of state lands – the trust lands – it’s particularly important to understand how their regulations impact recreation. 

In Montana, a $10 general license is required for all recreational use of state lands. An additional $25 license is required for special recreational uses such as overnight horse trips and an application for this license should be filed well in advance of your planned trip or event.  Unlike on Forest Service or BLM lands, where dispersed camping is free and unlimited as long as you don’t spend more than 2 weeks in any one spot, dispersed camping is more restricted on state lands.  In addition to requiring a license, camping is limited to 16 days within a 30-day period within designated campgrounds or unleased/unlicensed state lands.  And, if you are on state land that is leased or licensed for any purpose, then dispersed camping is limited to 2 consecutive days.  In general, you can assume that dispersed camping is limited to 2 days on state land in Montana, because with the exception of the Swan, Stillwater, and Cole Creek state forests, the vast majority of trust lands are leased for grazing or other purposes.  Also, if you want to have a campfire when you’re out camping on state land, you must be in a designated campground.  This differs from federal public lands, where campfires are generally permitted outside of designated campgrounds provided the fire danger is not too high and you follow Leave No Trace principles. 

Montana DNRC does not build or maintain trails, which severely curtails recreational access.  The few trails that exist on state land are either maintained by a permitted entity or not maintained at all.  Even with declining budgets and shrinking trail crews, public land management agencies still make an effort to clear and maintain their trails each year.  If these lands, and trails upon them, were transferred to state ownership or management, many of the trails we depend on for recreation would fall into disrepair.   

Perhaps the most striking difference between state lands and federal public lands is the ease of which they can be sold to private ownership.  State lands are regularly bought and sold.  In Montana, the 5-member Land Board (the Governor, Secretary of State, State Auditor, Attorney General and the Superintendent of Public Instruction) oversees state lands and is the deciding body when it comes to selling these lands.  In other states, like Wyoming, a single individual who is appointed by the Governor oversees disposal of state lands.  In contrast, federal public lands can’t be transferred or sold without an act of Congress – because these lands belong to all Americans regardless of where they live and we all have a stake in what happens to them.  If you value your ownership of Americas public lands, and you enjoy outdoor recreation, it is in your best interest to keep public lands in public hands!