In a decision that has drawn nationwide attention, a U.S. federal court has ruled in favor of public land “Corner Crossers” in a contentious lawsuit. The ruling could represent a turning point in the discourse surrounding private property rights versus access to public lands. The issue is important to RVers who boondock and those who hike, hunt, fish, and recreate on the Mountain West public lands.
What Are “Corner Crossers”?
“Corner Crossers” are people who cross (i.e., step across) from one parcel of public land to another at a joint corner, ostensibly not trespassing onto the adjoining private lands. This type of access is a point of contention with landowners who argue it infringes upon their property rights.
The Wyoming case hinged on the interpretation of property laws dating back centuries and the legal delineation of public and private lands. “Corner Crossing” supporters contended that their actions are within the law if no part of the private land is being encroached upon.
Trespassing in the air?
The court, examining the nature of property boundaries and the rights of citizens to access public lands, agreed with this argument. The ruling stated that “Corner Crossers” are not violating property laws as they do not physically trespass onto private property.
U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl ruled that the defendants, Bradly Cape, Zachary Smith, Phillip Yoemens, and John Slowensky, did not trespass when, in 2020 and 2021, they crossed and passed through the private airspace of Elk Mountain Ranch in southern Wyoming while hunting. The ranch owner, Fred Eshelman, argued that the hunters trespassed through the airspace of his property and claimed the hunters caused more than $7 million in damages, even though the men never stepped foot on his property.
“The private landowner is entitled to protect privately-owned land from intrusion to the surface and privately-owned property from damage while the public is entitled to a reasonable way of passage to access public land,” Skavdahl wrote. “The private landowner must suffer the temporary incursion into a minimal portion of its airspace while the corner crosser must take pains to avoid touching private land.”
Probably not the last word
While it appears legally sound, this decision has elicited varied reactions. Many “Corner Crossers” celebrate its victory for public land access and defense against privatization. Meanwhile, many private landowners are concerned that the ruling could lead to increased trespassing and property rights violations.
Critics argue that the ruling could lead to encroachments, de facto easements, and misuse of private property under the guise of “Corner Crossing.” They believe stricter regulations should be in place to maintain the sanctity of private property boundaries.
The court’s ruling holds precedence for now. It marks a crucial moment in the dialogue between public access and private property rights, setting a precedent for future legal proceedings—but will almost certainly head to appeal in the U.S. Federal Court for the Tenth Circuit in Denver.
Huge swaths of “land locked” public lands
For an idea of the scope of the issue, there are 8.3 million acres of public land “locked” by a patchwork of private and public lands.
According to the exploration technology company onX Maps, based in Missoula, MT:
Over the past two centuries, legislation, random chance, and a variety of land deals have left the American West with a patchwork landscape of public and private land. Within the patchwork lie swaths of alternating sections of public and private land, like the squares of a checkerboard. At every point where four squares meet, there is a property corner ripe for controversy. With the issue of corner-crossing in the news again, we decided to leverage our strengths and drill down on the data. What we discovered was shocking in its scope.
- Using onX mapping technology, we identified 8.3 million acres of corner-locked lands—more than half of the West’s total landlocked area.
- 27,120 land-locking corners exist in the West.
- No law exists that specifically outlaws corner-crossing, but various attempts to make it either definitively legal or illegal have thus far failed.
- Property owners have valid concerns, and any solution to the problem must address landowner needs.
The schism between private landowners and those seeking access to public lands will continue. It will take more legal wrangling and likely legislation to attain an equable solution. A solution might be purchasing private lands, easements, or a combination of both. Another solution would be for the government entities holding title to the landlocked public parcels to trade or liquidate the properties. The result of the anticipated appeal in the Elk Mountain Ranch “Corner Crossing” case could provide a preview of what happens next.