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Law & Justice
A regional collaboration of public media stations that serve the Rocky Mountain States of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

A Wyoming public lands case asks whether crossing corners is overstepping the law

A lone tree stands beside a trail on public lands
Madelyn Beck
/
Mountain West News Bureau

News Brief

A Wyoming court case involving public land access may soon head to federal court.

Landowners there want damages from four Missouri hunters who went over a corner where four pieces of land meet: two private, two public. The hunters didn’t touch the private land, but landowners argue they still went over it and therefore trespassed.

This kind of case has implications across the West because of the grid-like nature of land all around the region.

In the 1800s, the federal government took land used by Native Americans, and parceled it out in squares. Some squares became private land, others stayed public.

With this checkerboard pattern, the only way to access some public land is over corners also shared by privately-held properties. That’s what the four Missouri hunters did in Wyoming last year.

They’re charged with criminal trespassing. But there is also that civil case where landowners are seeking damages. Paperwork has been filed to move that civil case to federal district court.

Aaron Weiss is with conservation group Center for Western Priorities. He said this case is important since more people are using technology to find marooned public lands.

“There’s some irony that this is a problem created by 19th century federal law that has finally come to a head thanks to 21st century technology,” he said.

His group found in 2014 that nearly 1.6 million acres of public land in the Mountain West could only be accessed via corner crossings. Even more acreage was found to be completely inaccessible by foot.

“Public land is for all Americans, and all Americans should be able to access their land,” Weiss argued.

Other groups, including some members of ranching organizations, argue that crossing corners should be considered trespassing. That includes those who fear abuse of both private and public lands around these corner areas.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting