The Granite Mountains in central Wyoming contain a Wilderness Study Area, Split Rock and Lankin Dome, pictured here. A destination for rock climbers and other outdoor enthusiasts, access to the stunning public lands is complicated by adjacent private properties. (Chris Madson)

We put the canoes in on a state access area about 10 river miles above Saratoga. On a 90-degree Labor Day weekend, it was hard to think of a better way to spend the afternoon than floating down the North Platte River — mom, dad and two adult daughters, clear water over sun-tanned riffles, ospreys, eagles, killdeer and kingfishers sharing the last lazy day of summer.  

We were a mile downstream when the first sign came into view. “Stay in your boat,” it read, in large, red block letters, “Trespassers will be prosecuted.” A neighborly tip of the hat from a local landholder, in the best tradition of what has become Wyoming’s idea of hospitality.

It was no surprise. I’d been down this stretch many times and contemplated the juxtaposition of water — which is, by state law, the property of all the people of Wyoming — and the riverbank and bottom — which are, by state law, the inviolable property of the folks who hold the deeds. No surprise, just abiding disappointment.

I grew up canoeing on the float streams of the Missouri Ozarks. On those exquisite, spring-fed rivers, a canoeist is free to stop to fish, have lunch, camp or just soak in the scene on any gravel bar or part of the bank lying below what the courts have called the “meander line.” When I went off to graduate school in Wisconsin, I found the same general arrangement, thanks to the 19th-century law that allowed timber companies to float their logs down any creek big enough to serve the purpose. What began as an accommodation for influential business became a guarantee of access for people who wanted to float the rivers and stop along the way. 

Montana has recognized the demand for access to its streams by establishing two classes of flowing water. On Class I streams, the public is allowed to float with canoes, kayaks, drift boats or rafts. Floaters are allowed to portage around obstructions, anchor, picnic or camp overnight, hunt waterfowl and even set up temporary duck and goose blinds as long as they do so below the mean high water line and more than 500 yards from any occupied house. In 2009, the Montana legislature passed a law that allows floaters to launch their watercraft from any public bridge or county road right-of-way. 

Wyoming law, on the other hand, does not allow a floater to anchor or beach on a gravel bar or touch the bottom or bank for any reason, except to get around an obstacle in the channel. Boaters may not launch their craft from any bridge or road without permission from the landholder involved.

The contrast in the regulations in these states came to mind a couple of days ago when I found a copy of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s new report on public lands that the public can’t reach.  According to the TRCP analysis, Wyoming has established a dubious claim when it comes to closing state and federal land: 4.16 million acres of land held by the state, BLM and U.S. Forest Service in Wyoming are off-limits to the general public because adjacent landowners restrict passage. And I suspect that doesn’t include the ephemeral gravel bars on Wyoming’s rivers, the places a family or a boatful of fishermen might stop for lunch if the bottom of the stream weren’t jealously defended by the surrounding landholders.

It’s an astonishing number, one that should stick in the craw of any outdoor enthusiast in the state. But, for the moment, I’ll set aside the outrage and consider a broader consequence of Wyoming’s locked gates — its impact on the state’s second largest industry.

Up until two years ago, the federal government didn’t collect specific data on the economic impact of recreation in Wyoming or any other state in the West. For that reason, no one can calculate the importance of recreational outlays on the state’s domestic product. 

But in 2016, then Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead assembled a task force to assess the importance of the outdoor recreation industry in the state. The following year, that group issued a report that included some startling figures: In 2017, the outdoor recreation industry generated $5.6 billion in consumer spending. It paid $1.6 billion in wages and salaries and $514 million in state and local taxes. Fifty thousand people were employed in the industry.

In 2018, the oil, gas, mining and quarrying sector in Wyoming — the backbone of the Wyoming economy over the last 50 years or more — contributed $7.9 billion to the state’s domestic product. Compare that to the $5.6 billion in recreational spending. And that recreational spending grew by nearly 22% between 2012 and 2017, while the energy industry’s share of our domestic product dropped 2.5% between 2017 and 2018.

I had always been under the impression that the energy industry dwarfed every other economic sector in the state, but as these numbers suggest, the recreational industry is very nearly as large, and growing, while the fossil fuel industries have come on hard times. 

 As the tax revenue from the energy sector has declined, there has been a renewed call for diversifying the state’s economy. One hears proposals for drastically improving broadband access in Wyoming, shoring up our commercial air service and, more recently, allowing the storage of nuclear waste. It seems state officials will entertain nearly any idea — except the ones that would shore up what is already the state’s second largest industry.  

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Just one example: The numbers of nonresident fishing licenses sold in Wyoming have risen by a little more than 17,000 in the last five years. I wonder how many more we might sell if we relaxed the most draconian of our stream access laws and allowed anglers and floaters to launch their watercraft at county bridges, drop an anchor now and then and possibly even pull out on a gravel bar to have lunch or camp.

  And, on a much broader scale, I wonder how many more people we could attract to the state if we could find ways to open those 4 million acres of public land to public use. I know — these are radical proposals that will enrage several hundred landholders across the state. But, considering the trends in the energy sector of our economy, the alternative is a continued decline in tax revenue and government services. So, what will it be: More access or a state income tax?  

I know which one I prefer.            

Chris Madson

Chris Madson holds a master’s degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for state wildlife agencies in Kansas and Wyoming for 36 years before retiring in 2014 to...

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  1. Countries Elsewhere:
    Page 10
    GAO-07-676R Oil and Gas Royalties

    United Kingdom
    Russia – Sakhalin
    Source: GAO analysis;

  2. Wyoming needs to help ourselves. Federal Mineral Royalties are the largest share of state revenue, but we are long overdue to renegotiate the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920.

    Wyoming politicians are the recipients of excess funds from mineral developers. If Wyoming’s citizens had skin in the game, they would pay attention.

    Legalizing corner jumping would open lots of land. There was a court decision Mark Squillace was involved with that holds some promise. In the time of airplanes & satellites, land ownership can no longer be assumed to “extend unto the heavens.”

  3. In the 1970s there was a wave of petitions by private landowners to County Commissioners to vacate remote rural roads which had been legally established as county roads. Commissioners were all too happy to rid themselves of maintenance costs and to reward their fellow ranchers, and many roads in Johnson and Campbell Counties were vacated. One such example was the Kinney Divide Road, originally the wagon train route from Deadwood to Fort McKinney, in western Campbell County. When the Commissioners vacated that road they granted exclusive control of access to huge amounts of public land in Fortification Creek and Barber Creek drainages to two large landowners.

    Where were sportsmens’ groups, state and federal land managers and naturalists?

  4. It’s time to fix this. Boaters and fishermen should be able to use our rivers, and that means repealing our laws that are a throwback to the time when the Wyoming Stock Growers Association ran everything in the state.

  5. What is frustrating is how landowners are able to landlock public lands that, we as the public pay taxes on. They essentially get grazing rights, control sportsmen and more for their own monetary benefit. But, if there is a wildfire, guess who gets the bill? Not them. Better access to public lands is fair to the public; it would even be of benefit to some of those same landowners who lock up lands when they themselves travel to another interesting part of the state to visit themselves. As an equality state, we can do better.

  6. Legal access across private lands requires that it be bought. You can’t “take” land for a road without compensating the owner for that land..It can be done if money is available in Forest Service or BLM budgets. Think law would have to change for stream bottom and bank access? Unfortunately, many who recreate have ignored private property rights. They leave messes and trash the land public and private. After numerous break ins and thefts private property owners don’t put out a welcome mat.we need to address the land use ethic.

  7. Chris, is as always, right on the mark. It is way past time Wyoming drops its moniker of being “The Cowboy State” and become what it truly can become: The Wildlands and Wildlife State! That is what this state is all about to most of us. The state legislature might consider growing a backbone and begin passing a few laws that actually aid wildlife and public lands instead of consistently doing the exact opposite.

  8. I think this opinion piece is very good. But I wouldn’t pit access against a state income tax as means towards improving our state coffers. A graduated income tax, designed to protect the least among us, at a mere 2-3% would yield huge dividends to the state’s citizens. Why not do both to help Wyo get back on its feet in this era of declining energy revenue?

    1. Right on! Wyoming has a blind spot when it comes to “skin in the game.” If people were paying taxes, they would pay attention.

      The Mineral Leasing Act of 1920 allows Wyoming a 1/2 share of a 12.5% valuation. Texas splits 25%, while Alaska’s split is 90%. Around the world, Cameroon stands out for getting less mineral royalties than the USA. All developed countries get more. Russia is over 80%, and US off-shore is over 40%. Also, if we took the money from the fossil fuel companies, there would be less corruption in Cheyenne & DC.

  9. As a lifelong user of the outdoors including camping in many of Wyoming’s mountains including trail riding in to the Back Country, I have been a strong supporter of public access to public lands. I belong to Back Country Horsemen’s Association. An organization that does volunteer clearing and maintaining trails in Wyoming and across the country. We actively support keeping public lands accessible to the public.

  10. I am a public land holder that is often excluded from accessing the lands that I cannot reach because of a locked gate and no trespassing signs. Usually a road exists and often only a few hundred yards of private land is the barrier keeping me from miles of prime public land. I’m not interested in the use of the private lands but when a road exists to cross it there should be easements to allow accessing the public lands. As is, it is too convenient for a private landowner to keep huge areas of National Forest, State Land, or BLM Lands locked up for his own purposes.

    1. Yes. Many county roads in Wyoming were built and are maintained and plowed, without a right-of-way. That permits private parties to benefit from public monies.