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Public land crossing creates a private-property conundrum that’s tough to fix

House Bill 1066 would allow lawful passage between parcels bordering private property, settling a decades-old conundrum in the West

Bishops can do it on a chessboard. But not hunters.

The tidy squares that define ownership of land in the U.S. have created a dilemma as recreational explorers move between parcels of public land that touch in a pinpoint corner bordered by private land. While it’s possible to cross from one of those public parcels to the next without touching the private dirt, corner-crossers do technically move through the air space of that privately owned land.

The question of trespassing in that air is the crux of the corner-crossing conundrum. If that sounds familiar, there’s a similar conflict in Colorado swirling around trespassing in water flowing through private land.

In Wyoming, hunters are embroiled in a lawsuit filed by a rancher who contends the hunters’ corner-crossing between public parcels has reduced the value of his adjacent private land by millions of dollars. Lawmakers in Wyoming, Montana and Nevada have tried and failed to create rules that allow recreational users – mostly hunters and anglers – to step into public land bordered by private property. A recent report by navigation app maker onX and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership identifies 8.3 million acres of public land that are “corner-locked.”

A Colorado lawmaker is lined up to help, hoping her legislation, House Bill 1066, can allow people to walk from one corner of public land to another corner at the point where the two parcels meet. Rep. Brandi Bradley, a Republican from Littleton, has proposed a law that would eliminate the possibility of trespassing charges against corner crossers and prevents landowners from erecting fences within five feet of the corner.

“For me the impetus here is to balance property rights with public access, and I think that can be done,” said Bradley, who suggested her legislation would help property owners more clearly define the parameters of trespassing without needing to argue about infringement of airspace above private dirt. “They are not winning those air space cases. I think this will help make black and white a really gray issue. This will help better protect private property rights.”

There is not a law that specifically prohibits stepping over private land to reach public land is illegal, but property owners have pushed to prosecute corner crossers.

Corner crossing is not as acute an issue in Colorado as it is in Wyoming, Nevada and Arizona, where the controversies date back decades.

In 2004, the Wyoming Attorney General issued an opinion that further muddied the corner-crossing issue, saying that a hunter must have the intent to hunt on private land to be charged with violating the state’s hunting laws when crossing a corner.

“However that does not mean that corner-crossing is lawful,” reads the 2004 opinion, which leaves room to charge corner-crossers with criminal trespass.

Four Missouri hunters in Wyoming in 2021 were charged with trespassing after they crossed from one parcel of public land to another at a checkerboard corner. They were accused of trespassing on the 22,000-acre Iron Bar Ranch near Rawlins, but a Carbon County jury in April found them not guilty. The owner of the ranch, a North Carolina businessman, filed a lawsuit in February 2022 in U.S. District Court in Wyoming, arguing the hunters caused financial damages between $3.1 million and $7.75 million when they violated the airspace above his property. A federal judge last summer rejected a motion to dismiss the case.

The Missouri hunters were using the onX app when they propped their short stepladder over the fence posts off Rattlesnake Pass and stepped through private airspace from public land to public land.

The onX Corner-Locked Report found 27,120 corners in the West with 2.4 million acres of public land in Wyoming locked behind 8,159 property corners. The report counted 1.93 million corner-locked acres in Nevada and 1.33 million acres in Arizona. Colorado has about 101,000 acres of public land that are inaccessible without stepping over private property corners.

Wyoming lawmakers this year proposed legislation that would eliminate criminal trespass “if the person incidentally passes through the airspace or touches the land or premises of another person” while crossing a common corner.

The Wyoming State Senate declined to introduce the bill in late January. A similar bill in Wyoming failed in 2011. In 2013, a bill that would have allowed corner crossing in Montana did not reach fruition. Corner-crossing legislation did not go anywhere in Nevada’s statehouse in 2017.

Landowner groups, which refer to the issue as “corner trespassing,” have fought legislation seeking to legalize travel across corners of public land.

“To cross a corner, a member of the public must cross all four corners, including the private ones. That is a trespass – a physical occupation of private property,” reads a statement by the United Property Owners of Montana, which argues the air above their land is privately owned and any rule that allows passage across that air is government taking away property.

“There is no minimal amount of trespass that wouldn’t be considered taking of property,” the group says.

Options beyond legislation

There are better answers to the corner-crossing dilemma than legislation, said Madeleine West, the director of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Center for Public Lands.

West said her group supports the prosecution of people who knowingly trespass “as well as those who act to prevent the lawful use of public lands.”

The partnership prefers hunters, anglers and recreational users work with landowners and find common ground before the lawmakers and courts get involved.

“When those two interests are not talking and working it out, you get court cases like we have in Wyoming and once you get in the court system, you lose your ability to negotiate,” West said. “I would say the same about legislation. It’s harder to negotiate when legislation enters the process. The legislative proposals we see are a zero-sum game where one side wins and the other side loses. That is not a viable outcome for us on this issue.”

West points to state plans like Montana’s Unlocking Public Lands program that reimburses landowners who allow access as an example of state-funded strategies to improve public access without legislation or court decisions.

Across the West, the preferred strategy for opening access to landlocked parcels of public land involves reaching agreements with private landowners. The onX report estimates that 16,102 easements purchased from 11,000 private landowners could unlock access to all the 8.3 million acres of inaccessible land.

In many ways, the approach to corner-crossing land issues in Colorado mirrors the strategies used by river advocacy groups when it comes to river and stream access. Just like the notion of trespassing through a landowner’s air space when crossing from corner-touching parcels of public land, the legality of passing through private land while floating on public water is equally cloudy.

There is a lawsuit in Colorado that seeks to finally settle Colorado’s murky river access rules, which allows recreational passage through private land so long as the passersby do not touch the banks or riverbed. Legislators have considered river-access laws but mostly river groups work with landowners to hammer out agreements that work for both sides.

On some of the state’s highest peaks, landowners are working with trail groups to allow hiker access while lawmakers consider legislation that could reduce the liability of property owners who allow recreational access. That legislation – Senate Bill 103 – is sponsored by state Sen. Mark Baisley, a Republican from Woodland Park.

While groups like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers work with individual landowners, the group supports “broad-scale solutions to corner crossing” through legislation. BHA has raised $120,000 for a legal-defense fund for the Missouri hunters in the Wyoming case and has filed a brief in the case arguing federal access laws already allow hunters and anglers to cross corners into public land.

“It is crucial public land hunters band together to fight for access to cornered public land,” reads the group’s fundraising page for the hunters, urging its members to “take the corner-crossing pledge.”

Legislation on corner crossings can provide much-needed legal direction and parameters that could prevent lawsuits and criminal cases like what’s happened in Wyoming, said Tim Brass, the state policy director for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

“In the Wyoming case, the public is getting the raw end of the deal and the public is on the defense while private landowners are playing offense. In that case we need to defend the public from hunter harassment,” he said. “Legislation can provide clarity on the law. … We appreciate Rep. Bradley’s interest in this and we support the intent of her bill.”

Bradley recently met with officials from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, representatives from the Colorado Farm Bureau and Colorado Livestock Association as well as hunter groups to discuss the legislation. She suggested that possible amendments may be coming for her bill.

“Everyone was super appreciative they were called to the table,” she said.

“At first glance, some people see the bill as infringing on private property rights,” Bradley said. “But it’s not. This will help landowners with trespassing issues.”

Bradley, the sole lead sponsor of House Bill 1066, said she thought this was going to be one of her least controversial bills, “but I’ve learned you don’t say things like that under the golden dome.”

“I think people are seeing this as common sense legislation that protects access and property rights and keeps corner crossing from getting kicked up the chain until it lands in some federal courtroom,” she said.