Leave it to the United States Government to lose track of almost three states worth of public land. Only an institution with so little incentive and ability to allocate resources for the betterment of human wellbeing could instantiate such a catastrophic waste of potential.
The following is a story of an engineer named Eric Siegfried, a Montana man who caught public officials in almost unimaginable levels of incompetence and waste. It is also a cautionary tale about the way extreme misallocations of resources are the predictable outcome of America’s current form of land use governance, which systematically severs control over certain resources from anyone equipped to use them rationally and effectively.
The Engineer Who Caught the Government’s Mistake
Multiple articles in the New York Times have recently reported on the findings of a group of private hunters and wilderness enthusiasts who have brought attention to millions of acres that nobody previously knew existed. A Times article published in February reported that, “Across America, 15 million acres of state and federal land is surrounded by private land, with no legal entry by road or trail. If this so-called landlocked land was one contiguous piece, it would form the largest national park in the country, nearly the size of Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut combined.” And, “Most of these inaccessible public lands are in the West, and, until recently, their existence was largely unknown.”
The land was only discovered, according to another recent Times article, because of a smartphone app called OnX. “OnX was born when Eric Siegfried, a mechanical engineer and part-time hunting guide in Montana, decided to make a Google Maps for the wilderness,” the Times reports.
Unlike Google maps, OnX is optimized for use in forests and other wild areas, displaying property lines, wind patterns, fire histories, and other data useful to outdoorsmen but not to ordinary civilians.
Times contributor Ben Ryder Howe writes, “Property data is often inaccurate and outdated, and early in the development of OnX Mr. Siegfried found himself asking, ‘Why is there no nationwide picture of land ownership, of public and private property boundaries, of who owns what?’” And so, according to Howe, “By collating state and county data and putting it on a microchip, Mr. Siegfried turned the project in the scrapbooking room into a company that just received more than $87 million from investors and that understands the American landscape arguably better than the government does.”