A Wyoming federal judge has ruled four hunters did not trespass when they stepped over fencing that met at the corner of public and private property.
The seemingly obscure case involving the hunters and a wealthy landowner in Carbon County, Wyoming, has been closely watched by public land advocates hoping for clarification of the murky corner-crossing issue. Corner crossing is when a person steps from one parcel of public land to another at a four-corner point where private and public land meet. Private property advocates – and the owner of Wyoming’s 22,045-acre Elk Mountain Ranch east of Rawlins – argue corner crossers are trespassing in private air space above their land.
The question of trespassing in that air above private land is the crux of the debate over corner crossing. It’s an important issue. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership has identified 9.5 million acres of federal public land in the West that are “corner locked” and inaccessible to the public.
“Landowners have 5,000 acres next to 5,000 public acres that aren’t accessible and they want the whole 10,000 acres and that’s not fair to the people paying taxes for that public land,” said state Rep. Brandi Bradley, a Republican from Littleton, who said her “phone has been blowing up” since Wyoming’s U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl issued his decision last week.
Bradley in February offered legislation that would allow public land users to freely walk between corners of public land by eliminating the possibility of trespassing charges and prohibiting landowners from fencing corners of their land that meet public property. Lawmakers in Wyoming, Montana and Nevada have attempted similar legislation to no avail. Bradley’s House Bill 1066 eventually ended up as a bill creating a task force to study the corner-crossing conundrum in Colorado.
Now she’s wondering if she should stick with the task force plan or return next session with the same bill and try again.
“We need to come up with some sort of position on corner crossing in this state,” she said.
The corner-crossing Wyoming hunters were acquitted of criminal trespass charges in an April 2022 trial and the ranch owner sought more than $7 million in damages in the civil trial.
Judge Skavdahl, in his decision, ruled there was no evidence that the hunters’ “airspace intrusion caused actual damage to or interfered with the plaintiff’s use of its property.” He ruled that while owners possess the air space above their land and can exclude people from that air space, “that right is not boundless.”
The judge ruled that when a person crosses from public corner to public corner on land owned in a checkerboard pattern without touching the private land and without damaging the private property “there is no liability for trespass.”
“In this way, the private landowner is entitled to protect private-owned land from intrusion … and privately-owned property from damage while the public is entitled its reasonable way of passage to access public land,” Skavdahl wrote in his ruling. “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.”
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers has collected more than 4,000 signatures from its members in support of legal corner crossing. Tim Brass, the state policy and stewardship director for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers said Colorado’s public land users of all political persuasions are eager for “a meaningful public access legislative solution” to corner-crossing challenges.
“I know Rep. Bradley remains committed to leading this charge on this effort and I think the people of Colorado deserve a solution that reflects the judge’s ruling, which was based on existing federal law.”
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