- Last Updated June 9, 2021
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Modernizing Access to Our Public Land (MAPLand) Act received its first hearing Tuesday by the House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee.
The MAPLand Act, which originally died in the 116th Congress, was reintroduced to both houses of Congress earlier this year. It currently has bipartisan support for its plan to update modern mapping systems by digitizing legal easements and right-of-ways to public lands that cross private land, road closures, vehicle restrictions, non-hunting boundaries or areas with specific rules, and waterway closures and/or restrictions.
In its testimony, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership said, “Unfortunately, when it comes to public lands, incomplete and inconsistent mapping data prevents outdoor recreationists as well as land management agencies—including the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and Army Corps of Engineers—from utilizing the full benefit of these technologies.”
The TRCP also cited the bill’s overwhelming support from over 150 hunting and fishing businesses – the same group that called on Congress to support the legislation in 2020.
“The events of the past year have helped to put in perspective the importance of outdoor access, and this bill would make it easier for Americans from all walks of life and varying experience levels to take advantage of the opportunities we all share,”added Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the TRCP. “Hunters, anglers, and the countless other Americans who enjoy recreating on our public lands extend their appreciation to the members of the subcommittee for their attention to this issue and ask lawmakers in both the House and Senate to support the MAPLand Act.”
To read more, read the full story below. This story will be updated as more information becomes available.
The reintroduced MAPLand Act is a piece of legislation in both houses of Congress that aims to update paper maps, data backlog to better serve sportsmen and women
WASHINGTON, D.C. – There are a few pieces of legislation making a comeback in the early months of the 117th Congress, but one particularly holds a significant amount of weight to advance outdoor recreation and conservation in the first quarter of the 21st Century: the MAPLand Act.
The MAPLand Act or Modernizing Access to Our Public Land Act (S. 904) was re-introduced to the U.S. Senate in March by Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) with eight bipartisan cosponsors, and the House of Representatives saw its version of the bill reintroduced by four bipartisan congressmen and women: Kim Schrier (D-Wash.) Blake Moore (R-Utah), Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho), and Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) on May 11.
Following the announcement of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal for the largest expansion of wildlife refuges in history and the release of the Biden Administration’s “America the Beautiful” initiative, the MAPLand Act is another layer of bipartisan work pertaining to sportsmen and women.
“Access is one of the most important issues facing hunters and anglers today, and the MAPLand Act is a commonsense investment to ensure all Americans can take full advantage of the recreational opportunities on our public lands,” Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said in a release by the organization. “In addition to making it easier for public land users to stay safe and follow the rules while in the field or on the water, this bill would allow our agencies to manage and plan more effectively while also reducing the potential for access-related conflicts between recreators and private landowners. Simply put, this legislation promises to help more people get outdoors. We appreciate these representatives’ leadership to introduce this bill in the House and our community is eager to help move the MAPLand Act through Congress.”
The TRCP’s Western Communications Manager Randall Williams added to Fosburgh’s comments, noting that in light of recent legislation passed, introduced, or re-introduced, by and to Congress, as well as the NWR expansion proposal, the MAPLand Act is part of a cornerstone that will boost these other advancements.
“Refuges are a prime example of places that would benefit from this type of information,” he said. “A lot of refuges are open to hunting and fishing and it’s a prioritized use by law, but there are careful decisions made about where on the refuge you can hunt. So, as opposed to out west where you might have thousands and thousands of acres of BLM land where you drive onto and can do what you want, there aren’t zones or these more tightly managed map-based restrictions or guidelines but on a refuge that’s what you’ll find.”
“As we’re creating new opportunities on these refuges—which offer great opportunities, especially in areas that don’t have vast expanses of public land—they’re great for recruiting, retaining, and reactivating folks. So MAPLand, having all that information digitized and accessible for people interested in checking out these opportunities, especially in this case haven’t existed previously. There’s not a long, local knowledge of where you can and can’t go it’s kind of like, OK get out the rulebook and pull out your maps and figure out how this all works. But if you have a digitized GIS file, it makes it easier for people to follow the rules.”
The MAPLand Act, though geared at providing more information to those who need it, will also benefit conservation efforts by different stakeholders. Further, it will help the TRCP in an initiative recently introduced in collaboration with onX Maps to gain access to landlocked public land.
What is the MAPLand Act?
The MAPLand Act is a critical piece of legislation that would update outdated mapping data, giving outdoor recreation enthusiasts critical access to rules, regulations, and other information so they can thrive in their pursuits.
According to the TRCP, “The MAPLand Act would digitize recreational access information and make those resources available to the public. The legislation would also provide federal land management agencies with funding and guidance to create comprehensive databases of available map-based agency records related to recreational access and use.”
“One of the issues with this type of information, this access data, is that it’s out there but it’s often in a paper map form or something you can’t reference with a GPS unit,” Williams said. “Or it’s written into an agency planning document, where maybe a Forest Service office out west has studied how wildlife uses an area and the written travel planning document that manages which roads can be used at which time of the year in order to minimize the impact on … seasonal habits by vehicle traffic. But before you get out there and run into a gate on those roads, a lot of times you have to go into these documents and read them very carefully. You almost have to be a lawyer to understand what the different contingencies and restrictions are.”
Williams notes that bringing this data into an easily accessible form with easy-to-understand notations is a “huge win” for hunters. The TRCP notes that other important information that would become available for public use are legal easements and right-of-ways across private land, year-round or seasonal closures of roads and trails, vehicle restrictions, boundaries of areas with special rules, and areas of public water that have horsepower restrictions or are off-limits to watercraft entirely. The organization also highlights the archaic nature of government agencies’ mapping system, citing data from 2020 that only 5,000 of the existing 37,000 easements owned by the U.S Forest Service had been converted to digital files.
How will this benefit hunters?
First and foremost, modernizing maps will bolster GPS systems used by hunters. With up-to-date land boundary data, it not only will benefit those in pursuit of game but will save time, money, and, potentially, law enforcement resources.
“Most hunters are probably familiar with some of the uncertainty and confusion that you can encounter when you’re trying to identity access opportunities, especially if you’re looking for those out-of-the-way access opportunities that aren’t marked with a trailhead or a big parking lot or anything like that,” Williams said. “Where there are chunks of private [land] intermixed with chunks of public, it can be confusing to know which roads and trails you can travel. A lot of those roads and trails have restrictions on vehicle type and some of them have seasonal closures or restrictions, so getting to the place where you want to hunt oftentimes can generate uncertainty. I think a lot of ethical sportsmen and women avoid areas altogether if they’re not certain it’s legal for them to get there. One of the things this legislation would do is create a resource that would alleviate a whole heck of a lot of that uncertainty.”
Because restrictions aren’t created just at the federal level, having state and local restrictions in the palm of your hand will only benefit hunters.
“There are other areas where you can’t hunt within 150 yards of ‘this particular landmark,’ whether it’s a parking lot, building, or a particular boundary around something that’s going on in the forest where there might be a conflict with hunters. This would digitize all these local restrictions and rules,” Williams said. “That’s another huge gain for hunters. It’s one of these things where you might want to hunt turkeys where you’ve seen turkeys, and unless you went out and paced off 150 or 200 yards, you wouldn’t be sure if it’s actually legal to hunt in that particular patch of trees or along that fence line or whatever.”
Lisa Nichols, access advocacy manager for onX Maps, also touched on this time-saving benefit noting it would begin at the computer.
“If people have this type of regulation information at their fingertips when they’re at home planning an outing at their computer, they’re a lot less likely to plan something that they later find out they can’t get to,” she said. “That will save time and energy, and if somebody’s planning a hunting trip from across the country, and it’s their big trip for the year, then they get there and see a sign communicating a regulation that they didn’t know about, it could be very costly for hunters.”
Updated data would also allow those hunters in the community who want to outsmart or outplay other hunters to get an upper hand for new routes into an area, but would also benefit new hunters who aren’t sure about “where they can go and what they can do.”
“Having that confidence that this resource is comprehensive and they’re not going to accidentally stumble into some violation they weren’t aware of, that empowers people who maybe have less confidence finding opportunities to get out there and take advantage of what’s available,” Williams said.
How will this benefit wildlife conservation?
Though the bill will serve sportsmen and women, it will also help wildlife agencies in their mission to conserve and enhance wildlife and habitats.
“Conservation is such a broad idea and people think about conservation in different ways, but if the public isn’t seeing regulation information until they pull up at the trailhead or pull out of the public land unit, it’s hard for them to follow the rules if they don’t know what the rules are,” Nichols said. “That all feeds into how we maintain and manage our public lands.”
“Agency personnel that are working on all sorts of issues need to know where there is and isn’t access,” Williams added. “That allows them to go about securing access where it’s not legally guaranteed. It might be that, by digitizing all these easements, all of a sudden agency personnel have a much clearer sense of—if they’re going to open up new points of access—where it’s most needed.”
Williams noted that folks might be shocked if they knew how compartmentalized this data is within wildlife agencies, citing a conversation with a Forest Service employee.
“They had conducted a timber sale and, sure enough, they had a road that would access where they were going to start logging and it turned out, even though the agency built the road, they didn’t secure the rights to use the road,” Williams recollected. “So the whole timber management project was in jeopardy because they had to go out and pursue an easement before they could get trucks down the road to do this timber management project.”
“The more information that’s available, it’s not just for us. It’s not like the agencies have all this information and they’re keeping it from us. They need it, too, to do their jobs more efficiently.”
The best part of the bill, in terms of conservation, is that allocated monies will not come from already stretched coffers.
“We all know some of our federal public land agencies need more resources, so this bill gives them the resources to do that so they don’t have to dig into already cash-strapped pockets to address this issue,” Williams said. “And, by hopefully bringing greater efficiency to the management of all this information, it allows them … to do the work that’s central or core to [their] mission.”
Finally, all of this can lead to more advocacy, hunter recruitment, retention, and reactivation, and conservation dollars flowing into agencies. And if all agencies are working with the same digitized data, money will be allocated to projects that need them rather than logistics of something that may already exist.
“If every agency was working off the same set of information as they’re reviewing which piece of public land they’re working towards opening up or making more accessible, then a lot of time and money could be saved,” Nichols said. “I’ve heard of Land Trust working for a long time with a landowner to secure public access across this private parcel, and after a year of negotiation they learned the there’s already an established right-of-way to get to the place they were trying to gain access to. Stuff like that … the efficiency would end up being good for conservation because the money could be better planned.”
Landlocked: How the MAPLand Act will help the TRCP and onX with their bold initiative
Finally, the MAPLand Act will benefit a large-scale initiative set by both the TRCP and onX to gain access to public lands landlocked by private parcels.
Currently, onX and the TRCP reports show that across the country – including both state and federal land – nearly 16.5 million public acres (1,642,700) are locked away from use. With access to updated, digital maps, these two entities can identify areas to secure easements, giving access to sportsmen and women. Plus, with financial backing thanks to recent legislation passed by the 116th Congress, projects could find dedicated funding, including monies that would benefit private landowners who choose to open their land for access projects.
“Prior to the project with onX and TRCP, there hadn’t been any systematic effort to identify these types of places that we knew existed, but you weren’t able to look at a map and click a box and, all of a sudden, it highlights which parcels don’t have legal access,” Williams said. “So, we’re trying to bring to bear a systematic lens on this issue.”
Though the reports highlight different tracts of landlocked public land, something the joint reports aren’t able to include in the overall analysis is certain access easements.
“Obviously, there are roads that are managed by the agency and have these seasonal restrictions, and if they’re actively managed we can consider those in our analysis,” Williams said. “In some cases, there are old easements that may be 100 years old or more that an agency made an agreement with a landowner to allow recreational, public, or administrative access across their property, and those easements are held on paper files. So the agencies themselves a lot of times aren’t fully aware of where this is an issue so they can’t address it systematically. Instead, they address it anecdotally or piecemeal when opportunities arise. It would be a huge step forward in addressing this issue if all of these easements … they allow the agency to step back and say, ‘OK, well if we’re going to address the x number of acres in our particular management area, where are those resources best allocated?’
“There’s a huge amount of information out there sort of just floating around.”
According to Nichols, working with Federal agencies on this project has a been “exciting.” She notes that it’s shown her and the rest of the company how the agencies work around these issues, and how the MAPLand Act would ultimately give those agencies much needed funding to chip away at the outdated data.
“We’re all about getting more and more information in for our products because our customers are the customers of the federal land management agencies. We’re communicating through a tool that works across state lines and across land management agencies, so all of that information in one place, that’s our goal: to make information as accessible as possible,” Nichols said. “It’s been enlightening. I just learn so much. I think the entire company of onX has been able to understand what these challenges are a lot better through working directly with the agencies on this thing.”
“Just having the opportunities to get to know the people who are working on creating data, it’s just one part of their job. They have a whole day job beyond digitizing easements, so it’s been really good to have that information and understand the process better.”
According to Nichols, working with Federal agencies on this project has a been “exciting.” She notes that it has shown her and the rest of the company how the agencies work around these issues, and how the MAPLand Act would ultimately give those agencies much needed funding to chip away at the outdated data.
“Just having the opportunities to get to know the people who are working on creating data… it’s just one part of their job. They have a whole day job beyond digitizing easements, so it’s been really good to have that information and understand the process better.”
Both bills are currently in the beginning stages. Updates will be provided as information is provided.
Andrew Spellman is a professional journalist and outdoor writer based in Morgantown, W.Va. A 2017 graduate of West Virginia University, Andrew has written for and produced multimedia content for multiple Mountain State newspapers, securing awards for his work along the way, and has contributed to many outdoor magazines including Project Upland. As part of the Project Upland team as a digital editorial assistant, he frequently covers current issues and other facets of the upland hunting world.