The Modernizing Access to Our Public Land (MAPLand) Act was signed into law last week in part due to the efforts of Utah’s Congressman Blake Moore. This law requires Federal Land Management Agencies (e.g., Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management National Park Service) to standardize the dissemination of recreational data across agencies, digitize easements and rights-of-way, and map the types of vehicles allowed on a road or trail. Meeting the requirements of this law will help ensure hunters, anglers and other recreationist continue to have access to public lands.
Over the last decade, several companies have filled this need by creating digital maps displaying boundaries of private and public parcels and documenting legal access to public lands. These data are at your fingertips through a phone or computer. This laissez-faire approach has benefited several companies and many outdoor enthusiasts but leaves people without these digital data unless they’re willing to pay. As tax dollars paid to create these data, this law simply makes it an obligation of the federal government to provide this information in a usable format. Right now, it is all but impossible to find travel routes, emergency closures, dispersed camping regulations, and other important mappable regulations issued by federal land management agencies. That’s because this information is scattered across the internet since these data were created by different departments at different levels of multiple land management agencies.
For example, it is nice to see the Forest Service implementing an e-bike policy, but these decisions are intended to be local. This is the right approach but will make decisions hard to track because where you find a mapped decision of this policy for Northern Utah will be different than the same type of decision made for Northern California. This becomes even more problematic when you recognize Forest Service e-bike policies are different than those made for BLM lands, Wildlife Refuges and National Parks. This law calls for federal agencies not only to digitize their data but to “ensure compatibility and interoperability among federal databases”.
Publicly available digital data are important when hunting, angling, or hiking. Individuals will no longer have to guess whether the road right-of-way is public or what mode of transportation is legal. A recent court case in Montana suggests federal management agencies may have to act proactively to maintain these easements. In that situation the Forest Service had not actively shown interest in maintaining this access, so the public lost their right to this easement. Given how political some public access points are, it will be important for the public (and the groups that represent us) to help maintain legal easements.
That means the initial mapping process driven by the MAPLand Act could have consequences if an easement is left off these maps. Landowners could claim this provides evidence that there is no public easement. It will be important for the public to take advantage of their opportunity to provide comments through this process and ensure all public access points are documented. Hopefully, drafts of these maps will be available for review for months before they are finalized. If easements are left off the first version of these maps, those errors may be hard to correct.
The need for digital map data is a result of personal Global Positioning Devices (GPS) on phones and other equipment. The ability to precisely determine where you are can have positive and negative effects to hunters and anglers. GPSs make it possible to consider corner crossing in areas where public lands are in a checkerboard ownership pattern. A court ruling a couple weeks ago in Wyoming has opened the door to this type of movement even as arguments remain about who owns the airspace over these corners. In contrast GPS devices allow states such as Idaho to expect hunters to know where the borders between public and private lands are located when it comes to trespassing laws. A decade ago, it would have been easy to claim you didn’t know exactly where you were. That is much more difficult to do today.
A world of digital data provides insights that can quickly improve hunting and fishing success. But as the great philosopher Yoda once said, “The greatest teacher, failure is.” Taking advantage of digital data to gain knowledge of where you can go, how to cast better, or how to be a more accurate shooter will only make you better if you get outside more often and use your shotgun, rifle, or fishing rod.