CA_Martis Valley_07182006_015.jpg
Closed gate with sign, Closed gate with sign, A No Trespassing sign on a closed gate across a dirt road in a field of sagebrush. A cloudy sky above and far mountains on the horizon in Martis Valley, CA. Waddle Ranch. 2006, CA, Martis Valley_Waddle Ranch, Natural Lands, Placer, Truckee, Martis Valley, Meadow | Mountains, 2006, CA, Martis Valley_Waddle Ranch, Natural Lands, Placer, Truckee, Martis Valley, Meadow | Mountains, Elizabeth Carmel

Millions of acres of public land are blocked by private property. We’re changing that.

You are here

Each winter, Janet Drake ventures out from her home in Phoenix to hunt in the Sky Islands. This remote region of southern Arizona is named for the isolated mountain ranges that punctuate expanses of grasslands and canyons. Differences in rainfall and temperature between mountains and valleys make the Sky Islands one of the most diverse ecosystems on the continent. “There’s a huge range of animals in that area—bear, bobcat, mountain lion, deer, and bighorn sheep,” says Drake.

Drake has been hunting in the Sky Islands for over 25 years. For most of that time, some of her favorite areas to visit were the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness and the Santa Teresa Wilderness, northeast of Tucson. And her most cherished hunt, when she is fortunate enough to draw a tag from Arizona Game and Fish, would be for the iconic desert bighorn sheep. She and her husband Gary would navigate their Jeep through a network of dirt roads that led to the edge of the wilderness, then head out on foot to track animals over miles of rugged country. Remote, peaceful, and incredibly scenic, this landscape was “everything you’d appreciate about an area away from large civilizations. There are plenty of animals back there that have never seen a human,” Drake says.

A stream runs through a desert canyon shaded by cottonwoodsAravaipa Canyon WildernessPhoto credit: Bureau of Land Management

The roads that hikers, equestrians, and hunters used to reach the wilderness boundary traverse a private ranch, the Cross F. The longtime owners left their gates unlocked, allowing the public to get across their ranch en route to the public land beyond. But about ten years ago, the ranch changed hands and the new owners exercised their rights to keep their ranch roads closed. “Suddenly, the gate had a lock on it, and you couldn’t get through,” says Drake.

Pretty much overnight, the Drakes—and everyone else who’d gotten to know and love this wild landscape—lost access to about 40,000 acres of public land.

Unfortunately, Cross F isn’t an isolated case. Arizona Game and Fish reports that access to over 4 million acres of public land in the state is blocked by locked gates or “No Trespassing” signs. Throughout the West, nearly 16 million acres owned by the American people and managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and state governments are inaccessible to the taxpayers who fund their maintenance.

Lots of landowners in the West are feeling the strain of fifty million new residents over the past few generations, leading more of them to stop allowing access to public lands through their private property, says Arizona Trust for Public Land Project Manager Michael Patrick. “In recent decades, the tradition of informal access has been on the decline, where folks were long accustomed to free rein for hiking, hunting, fishing, and snowmobiling.”

az_skyisland_111114_517.jpgTrust for Public Land supporters have helped protect wildlife habitat and public access throughout the Sky Islands, including the 30,000-acre Cienega Ranch, not far from Cross F.Photo credit: Chris Hinckle

Public lands often make up the economic and cultural backbone of rural communities, and guaranteeing the future of these places is critical to ensuring the stability of many small towns. At the same time, it’s not fair to expect private landowners to shoulder a tradition carried over from a bygone era, when so many other realities of life in the West have changed.

From the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail to Zion National Park and hundreds of places in between, we work alongside local communities to identify access problems, and partner with landowners and public agencies to transfer properties to public ownership or create legal agreements ensuring permission to cross private land. “It’s a very targeted, strategic approach to land conservation: we look for opportunities where protecting a small amount of land can guarantee access and connection to much bigger areas,” says Patrick.

The Cross F Ranch presents one such opportunity. These days, we’re working with the landowner on a plan to acquire the ranch and transfer ownership to the Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service. It's the latest in our years-long efforts to improve access to the outdoors in the Sky Islands, and protect important wildlife habitat

The project is getting crucial support from local hunters like Janet and Gary Drake, who are on the board of the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, and who also run the nonprofit 1. 2. 3 Go, which creates opportunities for youth to experience the outdoors through backpacking, canoeing, and volunteering on habitat restoration projects. The Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society has made a donation in support of the Cross F project.

Several desert bighorn sheep on a cliff in Aravaipa Canyon WildernessDesert bighorn sheep roam the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness.Photo credit: Bureau of Land Management

Drake says it’s important to prevent the ranch from development that could impede the ability of sheep, deer, and other wildlife from moving freely across the land to access the habitat they need to survive and thrive. “There’s a strong connection between conservation and hunting,” Drake says, pointing out that the state’s wildlife management and conservation agency is funded by fees paid by hunters, archers, and anglers.

Drake says she’s hopeful the Cross F project will succeed. She’s looking forward to getting back out into the place that’s taught her so much: about wildlife and how they survive, and about self-reliance and preparation to stay safe in remote places like the Sky Islands. And she’s eager for youth involved with 1. 2. 3. Go to explore the wilderness that’s been off-limits for most of their lives.

“A whole generation of kids has never known about this area,” Drake says. “It’s just been closed for too long.”

Want to be part of the effort to unlock public lands across the country? Now is a great time to join The Trust for Public Land: if you give before December 31, your gift will be matched dollar for dollar. Donate today. 


Alvin Pudwill
the trust for public land is a good thing oil wells should not be on the lands
Bill Christie
I'm not so sure this is a good idea. The area has been nicely protected, no animals being threatened...I'm sure they're happy, and no plants have been trampled on for a long time, and no one has brought in the threat of fire. These people only seem to care about not having access to animal killings.
Perhaps the state could enact a program where it would by way of its Fish and Game Department, purchase easements from landowners that would provide for public access.This program has been especially successful in New York State where the New York Department of Environmental Conservation has secured the rights along wilderness streams from lumber and paper companies for hunting,fishing,trapping and limited camping activities.I personally have benefited from this program that allows me to more fully enjoy my outdoors pursuits in very wild and beautiful places.
Stanley Hutchison
There is alot of the People's Property that is cut off. Ranchers and others deny access to these Public Lands along with they run their own livestock on these Lands to include hunting also.
Mark Gall
As a retired BLM and NPS law enforcement ranger, I'd like to see the feds buy access to larger chunks of federal (and state) lands. The above predicament is certainly not rare, and locks up places that the public should have the right to enjoy. Hunting is not the only recreational activity that is prevented. If there is only one way into a large land area, and it is privately owned, the land for an entrance should be taken and the owner paid a reasonable amount. This is legal, and perhaps the only way to achieve entrance to these lands. Note that it is not only the public that is kept out, but even law enforcement and land management staff cannot enter.
Overpopulation seems to have been the problem leading to the no trespassing signs as so many new people tend to trash the land. This has happened in the Adirondacks of NY where trails are damaged and alpine plants ruined. Perhaps if permits were used to limit numbers and given to locals on a semi permanent basis this would help. Many people do respect the land and should have access.
Please acquire the land and DON'T transfer it to the federal government! We've seen how willing Washington is to open federal lands to exploitation (ANWR, Bears Ears, etc) Don't give them more land to "lease" to private companies for pennies, so they can destroy the ecosystems that have been preserved by limiting access! Keep it in the hands of a land trust that can manage it and keep it for recreation and habitat!
I tend to agree with responder Bill Christie. Keep these areas protected. From what I have seen in the last year of so many accessing wilderness areas and completely over running some with no regard to the land and leaving their waste behind, these lands would be better left alone and protected especially in fragile drought stricken Southern AZ.
Buying an easement is not enough. Someone needs to enforce easements to public land. In Washington state I have found that the State obtained many, many easements to public land in the 60's and 70's. These easements were for "access to and from" lands, with no restrictions on who could use them, and for decades the public used these roads freely. Now, jump forward, the big timber companies have gated and posted "no trespassing without a permit" on those roads, blocking off public land with legal easements. And the public agencies let it happen. Easements are a paper tiger if nobody enforces them. The agencies are scared of confronting big timber, so they let it happen.
Michael A Berger
If these ranchers won't allow access then take away their grazing permits on public lands. Time to play 'hard ball'.

Leave a Comment