mountain and hills

Examining localized impacts of inaccessible or “stranded” public land in the western US


Public land accounts for a substantial proportion of area across the western United States, and the way that it is managed has major implications for recreational access, fire risk, and ecosystem services. Across the eleven western states, public land accounts for approximately 383 million acres; however, not all of this land is accessible to the public - approximately 6 million acres of public land in the West is “stranded” land. Land can become stranded through a lack of roads or other means of access and being completely surrounded by private land. Additionally, public land across the western US is often organized into a checkerboard-like pattern as a result of federal land policy in the 19th century, which was focused on transferring ownership to Euro-American settlers, and has exacerbated the amount of stranded land.

This haphazard process for designating public lands left significant amounts of them inaccessible to the public. Western public lands provide a large variety of benefits to U.S. citizens, but access to these lands is necessary in order to fully realize these benefits. Our research shows that, as a result of access limitations, stranded public lands may negatively affect local economies, contribute to larger wildfires, and hinder the movement of wildlife.


We examined the local effects of stranded public land by constructing a dataset of fine-scale tax lot information and merging it with an existing dataset on accessibility and land ownership in the western US. This new dataset was used to identify and describe the differences between private parcels that are adjacent to stranded public land, and parcels that are not. We also partnered with the US Forest Service to explore the effects of stranded Forest Service land, specifically.

This research yields new insights into the economic impacts of stranded, inaccessible public land; a dataset that includes high-resolution data on land values linked with data on the location and accessibility of public lands; descriptive statistics for private land near stranded, inaccessible public land; and additional research questions for future research on stranded lands.

Key Findings

We assembled data on all fires that started on public lands in the western US over the period 1992–2015 and estimated the effect of legal accessibility on fire size. We found that ignitions are 14%–23% more likely to become large (greater than one acre) if they occur on stranded land, and that this effect may be driven in part by agencies' inability to conduct fuels management and, in part, by slower suppression responses on legally inaccessible land. Our results suggest that wildfire prevention and suppression could be bolstered by improved access to public lands and underscore the need for ongoing research on the relationship between land ownership and wildfire.


This work is a collaboration with Dr. Bryan Leonard at Arizona State University and is supported by the US Forest Service.