A new bill could have a significant impact for public land hunters and anglers across the country. On February 19, congressmen Ryan Zinke, a Montana Republican, and Gabe Vasquez, a Democrat from New Mexico, announced the “Public Lands in Public Hands Act.” The proposed bill would restrict the sale of certain types of public land.  

In particular, the bill would require agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service to get congressional approval before selling or transferring publicly accessible federal land tracts over 300 acres, as well as parcels over 5 acres that are accessible via a public waterway. The bill would particularly impact the BLM, which administers 245 million acres of public land, primarily in the West.  

“The BLM was directed by Congress to identify lands for potential disposal including sale in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976,” Joel Webster, Vice President of Western Conservation for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), tells Field & Stream. “Nothing in that act requires the agency to consider public access.” 

The TRCP is among a coalition of conservation groups, including Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and Trout Unlimited, backing the bill. According to Webster, a big reason for the bill is to keep public land management practices updated with the times. “When the BLM was originally directed to identify and sell these parcels, handheld GPS units did not exist,” he says. “The public could not navigate or access small parcels of public land very effectively without fear of trespass. Now, you can know exactly what land you’re standing on, and many of these small parcels have become important for hunting and fishing access.” 

The bill’s floor of 300 acres (without access to water) means that smaller acreage parcels can still be easily transferred—and that funds raised from the sale of those lands can still be used to expand public access with other properties.  

“While most parcels listed for disposal are small and inaccessible, making them good candidates for targeted sale, numerous disposal tracts are publicly accessible and important for recreation,” explains the office of Congressman Ryan Zinke in a press release. “The Public Lands in Public Hands Act would increase Congressional scrutiny over land tracts listed for disposal while protecting smaller transfers that increase public access.” 

The bill is in the early stages of the political process. Ultimately, a companion bill would need to be introduced in the Senate, and both bills would need to work their way through the appropriate committees before being passed. But Webster is optimistic for its chances. 

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“Anybody who has hunted in areas with mixed public-private ownership knows the value of small public parcels,” he says. “They’re often tucked up against big ranches with great habitat. Those small parcels can have some of the best hunting on the landscape. And in some places, it’s the only public hunting access around. If we lost those parcels, we’d lose important public land opportunities.”