Before we try to tease out the prospect of "how to have a good experience on public land," I really believe we need to start by considering who uses any given piece of public land, in general terms:
- locals who have no access to private land or water
- locals who have detailed knowledge of "where to go" on a large piece of public land, water, or marsh, and want a quality experience similar to other local public and private lands, and
- non-locals who are looking for better opportunities than they have in their own locale
That's a huge variety in people, attitudes, and motivation for going afield on a piece of land that may be just one giant marsh, one lake, or a set of corn fields in the middle of nowhere. Now let's consider those users on the standard wildlife management area, which may feature forest, ag fields, grasslands, marsh, shoreline, and ponds or impoundments. And let's consider a time of year like April or October, when multiple uses are bound to impact one another, and conflicts will absolutely occur.
That sure got complicated in a hurry! This diversity in users, ethics, and priorities gives rise to an entire list of reasons why many outdoorsmen and women - from birders to hunters to surfers - avoid public access points like the plague. I'll cover that in my next post - but I bet that you've either thought them or yelled them at one time or another, as your public land experience was "ruined" -sometimes an exaggeration, sometimes not - by another member of the public.
So where should we start, as we try to extract more out of our public land experiences? I'd argue that the first exercise, which is overlooked by easily 50% of outdoorsfolk, is to actually know what public land is available. In my state, the state and counties are constantly adding public land via real acquisition, easements, and leases. These properties, which can be anything from stretches of beach to 10 acre woodlots surrounded by (private) ag fields, make it into the state hunting properties list after a few years of ownership, if ever. Do you know who the largest landowner in the United States? Did you answer the Department of Defense? That's right. If you or your spouse have a military ID - on some bases, you don't need one, you just need a base fishing/hunting/recreation license - you should be able to get on post for some outdoor activities. This is especially key for low security annexes or outposts where few other folks are liable to tread.
How do you get a reliable, high quality list of public properties that may or may not allow hunting, fishing, or other activities? You've got to do the homework. Part 1 of said homework is to find out what public land is even out there.
- Consult a state list of real properties (created annually for Federal tax purposes) - not just WMAs - look for state parks, rec areas, natural areas, "preserves," "open space areas," "natural heritage areas" and the like. Be ready to read about nearby state properties you've never even heard of! Many of us merely go to areas we already know, or areas that we happened to learn about while doing an internet search. If your area is anything like mine, though, you'll need to go beyond that level to enjoy public land.
- Find a list of county/city parks and recreation areas, areas owned by the Department of Public Works, and others.
- In some areas, you'll want a list of Federal properties too. Don't overlook US Forest Service (who add land regularly, often in disconnected patches) and the US Department of Energy. At this stage, don't be too concerned about what activities are/not permitted.
Part 2 of your effort - go ahead and cyberscout, I mean, virtually groundtruth, those properties with Google Earth or similar imagery - maybe a property is a paved lot full of schoolbuses, and maybe it's an overgrown site with a tiny pond in the back. It's absolutely critical that this step precedes, not substitutes for your actual scouting and calling work (to be detailed in my next post). At this point, you should either be working on a list or a spreadsheet with the following columns:
Property Name/Address Distance from Home Possible Activities?
Once you've started to get this basic information - it's time for Part 3 of this exercise - learning what's clearly legal, what's clearly not, reading between the lines, and not being afraid of "going deep and dark."