Which public? What purpose?

The New York Times ran an article the other day about access to public lands: It’s Public Land. But the Public Can’t Reach It. Hunters out west in Wyoming are using an app called OnX to locate public lands. The controversy arises when access to the prime hunting acreages is blocked as the parcel is surrounded by private ranches.

This leads to the question of whether something is public if it is beyond their reach. But first, what does it mean to be public land. According to the NYT:

Especially around the fact that public land — by definition owned by all Americans — is not always publicly accessible.

Is it realistic that every park and open space is considered a public amenity to every person on US soil? It doesn’t seem like nearly a precise enough description of what is truly at work.

There are 30 million acres of public land in Montana

The sheer geographic distance can keep a US citizen from enjoying Half Dome in Yosemite or the Reflecting Pool on the Mall in DC, but there are other impediments to obtaining full use of a federal, state or city property. If a gang of pill pushers are dealing at the base of some statue or drunks are sprawled out across every park bench, then the function of the park is transformed. And a more general public is discouraged from entering.

Neighbors can also use local authorities and rules to keep people out as the private ranchers do in the NYT story. The hunters are threatened with a civil lawsuit for having stair-stepped their way onto Elk Mountain. There will be pressure for the use of the land and thus difficult to deter the public from venturing out. As the rancher finds out:

However, he couldn’t keep the public out, for interspersed within his property lay 27 parcels — 11,000 acres in total, an area the size of several airports — owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management and the State of Wyoming.