Unlocking Information

Past Issues

Locked Out: Inaccessible Public Land

Landlocked Public Land in Montana

More than 3 million acres of public state and federal land in Montana is considered landlocked, which means that the public can’t access those acres without crossing through private property. Unless they own a helicopter or have express permission from a private land owner, it is impossible to legally access this land.  Although Montanan’s can hunt, fish, recreate and explore more than 27 million acres of accessible public land, these three million acres are out of reach.

The amount of landlocked area in the fourth biggest state in the U.S. equals approximately the same acreage as the total acreage of two Delawares.

Interactive map of Montana Public Lands

Please allow up to 30 seconds for map data to load. Zoom in or out using controls in the upper left corner and click on places to find out who owns the land and how many acres the parcel of land is. This map was created using the open source Leaflet software and data from the State of Montana Cadastral database.

Why is so much land landlocked in Montana?

According to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, state and federal landlocked lands developed in different ways. As western territories became states, the federal government gave lands to the state so they could generate revenue for public institutions. The land was given arbitrarily in a grid, creating parcels of state land surrounded by private landowners. A lot of federal land became landlocked when the federal government subsidized railroad construction by granting railroad companies alternating sections of land on either side of the railroad track. Even though a lot of these parcels of land touch at the corners, it isn’t legal to cross over the corner from one piece of public land to another in Montana.

Example of landlocked lands in Northwest Montana

Screenshots taken from https://svc.mt.gov/msl/mtcadastral/, information on landlocked land from http://www.trcp.org/unlocking-public-lands/

What is Montana doing to open these lands?

According to Jason Kool, the Landowner Sportsmen Relations Manager for FWP, Montana has several initiatives at work to open up some of this public land. The most successful is the Block Management program. This program works with private landowners to allow access on and through their land, usually for hunting. Kool said half a million acres of landlocked state land are opened through this program That’s a third of the landlocked state land.

Another initiative includes a tax incentive program called Unlocking Public Lands. It hasn’t been as successful as hoped so far. Kool said this is in part because it is a new program and it hasn’t been promoted well enough. It also gives less control to the landowner than the Block Management program.

What’s next in unlocking?

One major issues in unlocking public lands is the lack of adequate funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. According to Kevin Farron, the Montana Chapter Coordinator for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, when the LWCF was created in the 60’s it was funded at $900 million. Now, 50 years later, it hovers at about $600 million. Since its inception, the LWCF has opened access to more than 5 million acres of public land and has established new fishing, hunting, and recreating areas. Key organizations who are fighting to unlock public land, such as the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, BHA, and onX, are lobbying to achieve permanent funding for the LWCF.




Past Issues

Leased for Livelihood

One family ranch relies on public land for success

Mike Meuli left the ranch twice: once for college and once to spend a year winning over his soon to be wife.

“I’ve lived here in the Proctor valley all of my life other than a brief time away for college and a year to go to Minneapolis and convince my wife to return to Montana with me,” said Meuli, a fourth generation Montanan and second generation rancher.

“Whether it is a private landowner, state of Montana, federal government, whatever, we’re all just neighbors trying to manage our property the best we can and helping others do the same.” – Mike Meuli

Meuli and his wife Nancy have been married 36 years and have three children, John Michael, Matthew, and Mikayla. Ranching has always been a family affair and their livelihood depends on their ability to access and lease summer grazing land for their cows.

Meuli’s state land lease is one of approximately 8,000 agreements for grazing in the state of Montana, according to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The section of land totals about 640 acres and is landlocked, meaning that it is surrounded by private property and inaccessible to the public except through private land. Meuli has been leasing the land for decades and gets access through a friendly neighbor, whom he leases land from as well. In total, Meuli leases land from 19 different landowners.

The lot he grazes his cattle on during the summer is the only state land he leases. The herd grazes from the summer until the beginning of October, but sometimes they want to come home early. Meuli said that one of the biggest problems in the early fall is cows escaping and wandering around.

Back when most of the surrounding land was ranches, he said this didn’t matter so much. But now, people aren’t usually as happy about having cows show up in their front lawns.  When he finally opens up the gates in early October, most of his cows wander back home on their own accord. The last bunch gets rounded up with four wheelers and horses. Then they are sorted and counted.

Mike Meuli points to his land and the state leased land he leases at his office in Proctor, MT on Oct. 5, 2019.

Mike and Nancy Meuli home schooled their kids and all three worked for the ranch in their spare time. Meuli said that John Michael loved the animals, Mikayla loved to farm, and Matthew loved being a cowboy.

Ranching is a way of life for Meuli, and one he enjoys despite the sacrifices he has had to make.

“If you get to do what you love, it’s not as big of a factor having to put the time in,” he said.

Above: The Meuli’s cows return home from summer grazing lands and wait to be sorted on Oct. 5 and 6, 2019.



Unlocking Public Lands

Past Issues

Unlocking Montana’s Public Lands

More than three million acres of Montana’s public lands are landlocked and inaccessible to the public. For Mike Meuli and Trenton Kris access to public land is important for livelihood and lifestyle. This project examines the role of public land in their lives and it examines the issue and scope of public access through graphics and an interactive map which details public land in Montana. This project was reported and created by Mollie Lemm, a senior studying journalism at University of Montana.