Access to Public Lands: Meeting the Challenge

America’s public lands are a magnificent national recreation resource. Much of the outdoor recreation enjoyed in this country -- hiking, skiing, biking, horseback riding, four wheeling, to name just a few examples -- takes place on these public lands. Millions of Americans and visitors to this country who drive for pleasure -- one of the most popular forms of recreation -- cherish their visits to public-land sites. The economic vitality of countless communities is directly linked to recreation and tourism associated with these lands. Unfortunately, although there is widespread recognition of public lands as a priceless national resource, the system of roads that keeps them accessible and enjoyable is all too often overlooked and undervalued. As a result, the future of these roads -- and the communities they serve -- is far from assured.

In 1982, the Federal Lands Highway Program (FLHP) was created to provide funding for the public roads that serve transportation needs on federal public lands. Under FLHP, funding is provided for designing and constructing 8,000 miles of roads and parkways in National Parks, 27,000 miles of state and local roads providing access to and within the National Forest System, and nearly 50,000 miles of Indian Reservation Roads. In addition, there is a discretionary Public Lands Highway Fund for which any public road providing access to and within federal public lands is eligible.

Despite increased levels of funding and administrative flexibility provided to the program by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act in 1991, much of the road system on and accessing federal lands is crumbling. For example, according to the National Park Service, because of a lack of funds for road maintenance, many of the roads in Yellowstone National Park -- one of the nation’s "crown jewels" -- have deteriorated to the point that they must be rebuilt at a cost of $750,000 to $1,000,000 per mile. As another example, in a recent forum held by the Department of Transportation (DOT), representatives of the USDA Forest Service reported that only 20% of its roads are in good condition, while 60% are characterized as fair and 20% as poor. Because FLHP funds cannot be used for routine maintenance and because other sources of maintenance funding -- federal funds appropriated for the public land agencies and state and local monies -- are simply inadequate or unavailable, the system of roads that services the public lands is severely threatened.

Continued access to federal lands can also be a casualty of the political wars raging between environmentalists and commodity producers. A closed road may mean no more access for logging or mining, but it may also mean no more access to lakes, campgrounds, trailheads and other cherished recreational facilities. In addition, funds once generated by industry activity on public lands -- funds which could be used to maintain roads -- are drying up without any ready source for replacement funds. The trend toward privatization also presents its own access challenges. Private partners are now being sought to develop and maintain recreation facilities on public lands. A good example is the growing number of private campgrounds on the national forests. Private entities can be expected to invest their funds in facilities and services to attract and retain an increasing number of customers. However, they are not likely to provide the substantial funding that will be needed to build and maintain roads to access these sites.

The economic vigor of the West -- where 57% of the land is under federal control -- is inextricably linked to continued access to public lands. A fully funded Federal Lands Highway Program, with its mandate expanded to include maintenance, is key to that access. In 1997, as the federal highway program moves through reauthorization, the U.S. Congress must ensure that access to the nation’s public lands is protected and enhanced.

Thomas O. Edick, P.E.
Federal Lands Highway Program Administrator
Federal Lands Highway Office
Federal Highway Administration
400 Seventh Street, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20590
(202) 366-9494, (202) 366-7495 Fax