Public land is land that is managed by federal, state, county and local governments/agencies on behalf of the public.
“This land is your land, this land is my land….” You know the song.
You can access and use your public lands within the requirements and conditions the managing government/agency has set forth for land access and use. However, most land is not signed with these requirements, so it is up to you to figure out
• if the land you are accessing is public or private, and
• are the roads/trails you are using to get there public or private?
It is your responsibility to know these answers to legally enter and use public lands.
Identifying Public Lands
Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service maps also show public and private land ownership patterns, but the scales of these maps, particularly online versions, are difficult to read accurately. Additionally, these maps do not identify public road access across private land.
Once you’ve identified the land management agency, or agencies, find them online or contact them directly. They have experts, maps, and other resources to help answer your questions. Takes notes, including the names and phone numbers of people you speak to. The agency’s job is to assist you, and your tax dollars pay for this service. In my experience, they have always been friendly, helpful, and provided accurate information.
Accessing Public Lands
Private owners, the State of Idaho, federal agencies, and tribal governments have the authority to close lands or close access that impacts your ability to get to public land. Before you reach your destination, it’s important to know if there are closures in place. Some closures may not be notated on maps or found through online resources.
Idahoans, non-Idahoans, and various organizations and entities are purchasing land in Idaho. Increasingly more public land, for various reasons, is becoming unavailable to the public or access to it is being restricted, or denied. We’ve recently seen where private land owners have cut off access to nearby public lands by closing traditional access routes across their private parcels.
Public land that is completely surrounded by private land (known as an “inholding”), by definition, is also inaccessible. Government agencies can, via imminent domain laws, purchase easements on private lands to access public lands, but such actions are infrequent, costly, and time consuming.
Please respect all lands, and particularly those where private owners allow you to cross their lands to get to public land. This is a privilege; not a right.
State of Idaho
The State of Idaho owns and manages a lot of land in Idaho. Pursuant to the Idaho Constitution, the State manages much of this land to maximize profits to support schools. They often lease the land to private entities, but frequently under terms that exclude public access.
The State of Idaho also closes land to carry out agency missions. For example, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game manages large sections of Idaho’s public lands as part of its wildlife management responsibilities. The agency has legal authority to close lands to public use to further its management goals. Winter big game habitat closures are one example of this type of closure.
Federal agencies may close public land for a number of reasons. For instance, when a forest has been burned by a wildfire, the forest and its recreational trails, or other approved uses, may be temporarily “closed” until the forest has had time to recover to re-allow access. Temporary, in this case, is usually 2 years, but could be longer.
Many peaks in Idaho are located on lands owned by Native American tribes. Generally, access to these lands is allowed only to tribal members. Most peaks on tribal lands are considered sacred. As such the tribes typically do not approve requests by nonmembers for recreational climbing. However, Native American tribes usually have a public relations person, or tribal land management personnel, who can answer your questions.
Trespass—Know the Law
Federal and State Managed Public Land
Federally-managed and State-managed land may be signed when a closure applies, especially if it is a temporary closure, but often signs are not provided. For example, there are hundreds of trails across public lands, and these trails are often not signed. You will need an agency trail map that tells you what trails are open and what vehicle types you can use on them.
Sometimes closure signs are vandalized or removed by vandals, which is another reason to do your research beforehand. Again, contact the agency. Trespass is a criminal offense at both state and federal levels, and the penalties for trespass on federal land, for example, include fines and possible imprisonment for up to 6 months.
Most tribes have their own law and order codes and include trespassing as a criminal, prosecutable offense.
Entering private property, without permission, is a criminal offense in Idaho. Private property may be identified by “no trespassing” signs, or “other notices of like meaning, spaced at intervals of not less than one notice every 660 feet along such real property.” Currently, using orange paint on fence posts, orange trees, and gates is a very popular method of identifying private property boundaries.
Under Idaho Code (Title 18, Chapter 70, 18-7011), property that “Is posted with a minimum of 100 square inches of fluorescent orange, bright orange, blaze orange, safety orange, or any similar high visibility shade of orange colored paint, except that when metal fence posts are used, a minimum of 18 inches of the top of the post must be painted a high visibility shade of orange.” These markings denote private land and entering these marked areas is considered trespass.
If you get caught and convicted of trespassing, you are guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding 6 months, or by a fine of not less than $25 and not more than $1,000, or by both such fine and imprisonment.
The statute also states: “Where the geographical configuration of the real property is such that entry can reasonably be made only at certain points of access, such property is posted sufficiently for all purposes of this section if said signs or notices are posted at such points of access.” This requirement is ambiguous because it does not clearly identify such areas. Regardless, a person can still be charged with trespassing even when private property is not marked consistently with the statute’s marking requirements.
Public lands should not have these markings, but we have seen situations where access to public lands was made questionable with strategically placed no trespassing signs. In some areas, the government has secured public access across private property but not marked these access points as public.
Bottom line…take the time to research and contact the appropriate people to
make sure you are getting to your destination legally.