Tips for Increasing Public Land Access

Tips for Increasing Public Land Access

The top of the ridge was finally in sight as I made my way through the last of the blowdowns. It had been a tough hike. My route had taken me two miles from my truck up a steep slope littered with Doulas fir trees lying atop each other and a nasty rockslide that almost defied travel.

I’d barely caught my breath when an elk bugled. I dove into a small stand of trees, set up and called back. The bull’s response was immediate and before long we had a conversation going. Now 60 yards out, he presented a perfect broadside shot. The bull was mine at the shot, traveling 10 yards before he fell and lay still.

This had been one of my most challenging hunts. Though I had hiked up and down mountains much farther than I’d hiked that day, never had I done so with the extent of planning that went into this hunt.

I tagged the elk and began field-dressing it when I heard a branch snap behind me. I turned to see a man approaching with a rifle slung over his shoulder. He didn't look happy.

"What are you doing here?" he said. "This is private property."

"No it's not," I replied. "It's federal land. Here's my map. I'll show you exactly where we're standing." The man moved in closer to look at the map. I pointed to our location along with other prominent map features. Contours showed a small knob on one side of us and the map showed a spring on the other, matching the features surrounding us.

The man scratched his head and said, "Well, you might be right, but how did you get here without trespassing on my ranch?" I pointed to a tiny blue dot low in the sagebrush and explained it was my pickup, showing him the route I took on the map.

He seemed amazed. "You mean you hiked through that busted up timber and across the rocks?" I nodded. He said, "You deserve that elk, buddy," and walked off.

After field-dressing, I skinned and quartered the elk to carry it off the mountain. I was in my early 30s and in good shape. My job as a forester allowed me to experience all the physical challenges associated with my profession. With the elk in four pieces, it was ready to be put in game bags and carried. My backpack had a pack frame that accommodated one quarter at a time with an average weight of 70 to 80 pounds, which meant four trips—a two-day ordeal. I began to descend the mountain with the first quarter when I heard a shout. The rancher who confronted me earlier walked up, looking at me like I was a fool.

"If you're crazy enough to climb up here through all that blowdown and rockslides, I reckon I can cut you a break. There's a good two-track about 200 yards away that runs down the mountain. I'll help you pack those quarters to it and we can take it down. My pickup is only a quarter mile away." Then he smiled. I was quick to accept his offer. We had the meat and antlers off the mountain well before dark. I already knew the road we used was there because I'd seen it on the map, but it was on private property so I’d avoided it.

This was a perfect example of planning paying off. The country I hunted was a mix of private and federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). It was a typical mosaic of interspersed lands, common all over the West. Back in the days when the West was being settled and the homesteaders were staking their claims, they invariably selected the drainages and lowlands where water was available and the soil was fertile. The higher country was later claimed by the government, often leaving a patchwork of confusing parcels.

The BLM manages some 270 million acres nationwide and the U.S. Forest Service manages another 180 million acres. Every state also has parcels available to public hunting. However, much of the best public hunting is adjacent to private land that's hard or impossible to reach. My idea was to scrutinize maps and plan routes through public land to gain access to areas that seldom attracted other hunters—either because of the difficulty of getting there or not knowing access was possible.

I obtained topographic maps and BLM maps—each showing different features—and used crayons to delineate the federal and private lands on my “working” map. Keep in mind this was long before the days of GPS units. There were no easy methods to avoid trespassing.

Nowadays GPS devices fortunately are commonplace and many savvy hunters carry them. You buy the GPS unit along with a state "chip." Prices typically run a few hundred dollars. Your GPS will reveal public land you never dreamed was there and areas close to roads for easier access. For example, this past fall I took a cow elk on BLM land within a quarter-mile of a highway. She fell 20 yards from a ranch closed to hunting, but my GPS unit allowed me to pinpoint exactly where she was and where I was standing.

Just how accurate are these GPS units? Wyoming Game Warden Travis Crane said they're close enough to be used in court on trespassing cases. You can open a realm of hunting opportunities by taking time to determine land ownership. With more hunters on-easy-to-reach land, that is welcome news.

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About the Author
Jim Zumbo is best known as a Western big-game hunter, though he has hunted deer in all 50 states and is an avid turkey, upland game and waterfowl hunter. With two degrees in forestry and wildlife, he has had more than 2,000 articles published in outdoor magazines, written 23 hunting books and conducted numerous hunting seminars nationwide, including for NRA Hunter Services. In addition to serving as a full-time writer/editor for Outdoor Life magazine for 30 years, most of them as hunting editor, he was host of the popular outdoor TV show “Jim Zumbo Outdoors.” A Benefactor member of the NRA, Zumbo has won numerous awards for his writing and remains active with conservation groups, including serving three terms on the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s board of directors. For information on his biography, “Zumbo,” released in November 2016, click here.