WYOMING -- A new report by a digital mapping company puts the acreage of public land in Wyoming that’s “corner-locked” at 2.44 million acres, far more than earlier estimates of 404,000 acres.
The April 8 report by onX, estimates 8.3 million acres of public land from the Rockies to the Pacific are inaccessible to the public unless reached by corner crossing. The digital mapping company, whose Global Positioning System app is used by hunters, examined land records from 11 Western states to compile its report.
Corner crossing involves stepping from one parcel of public land to another over a four-corner checkerboard-like intersection with two private parcels — without touching private land. Many believe the law is unsettled as to whether passing through the airspace above private property — a necessity in corner crossing — constitutes trespass.
Corner crossing is in “a legal gray area,” onX states. That makes most of the public fearful of violating trespass laws, said Joel Webster, the vice president of Western conservation at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
“There’s not legal clarity and as a result, most people don’t do it,” he said of corner crossing.
A criminal trespass case in Carbon County however, is challenging that uneasy status quo.
A trial set to begin in Carbon County tomorrow could settle whether four Missouri hunters are guilty under Wyoming trespass laws for corner crossing at the Elk Mountain Ranch in 2021. The case will unfold in front of a circuit court jury in Rawlins over two days.
After cataloging the corner-locked acreage and reviewing state and federal law and legal cases surrounding the conflict between private property rights and public access to public lands, onX believes the issue won’t be easily remedied.
“Whatever comes next, this legal gray area could very well remain clear as fog for decades to come,” its report concludes.
The onX report updates a widely used earlier estimate assembled almost a decade ago by the Center for Western Priorities that reviewed the issue across six western states. OnX began working on the corner-locked project shortly before the hunters were charged in Wyoming, said Lisa Nichols, access advocacy manager for the mapping company.
“We first started talking about it a month or two before this information started coming to light in Wyoming,” she said. Company employees saw the issue in the news and “wanted to provide [others with] the information at our fingertips.”
The company has a crew that scours land records regularly to update ownership status and easements depicted in its products.
It found 27,120 property corners in the West where “two parcels of public land meet on opposite sides of a point, with private land adjacent, effectively in between them.
“Beyond these corners lie 8.3 million acres of federal and state land that are inaccessible to the general public because the legality of corner-crossing remains unclear,” the report states. OnX and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership in 2019 found that the public is blocked from 15.8 million acres of public land across the West. Some of it is completely surrounded by private land, some only “corner-locked.”
“[M]ore than half of all the landlocked public land in the Western U.S. would be unlocked if corner-crossing was legalized,” the report states.
Wyoming has the most corner-locked public land among the states surveyed, the report says. Its 2.44 million acres surpasses second place Nevada — 1.93 million acres — and Arizona — 1.33 million acres — the onX report states.
Across the West, about 5.9 million acres are corner-locked in a checkerboard land ownership pattern, much of that the result of federal land grants given to facilitate railroad construction.
All told, the 27,120 property corners onX identified could provide access to public lands.
The report does not advocate corner crossing and underscores the knotty legal history surrounding the issue. It provides a landowner perspective, including complaints about disrespectful public land users and promotes a dialogue between landowners and hunters.
Among the tools that could help resolve conflicts are land swaps, easements and programs like Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Access Yes initiative that opens private lands to limited hunting, according to the company.
“We wanted to basically provide a little more context than maybe the average hunter might be aware of,” Nichols said. “The legal backstory, it just feels so confusing.
“That’s why we wanted to offer up a couple more viewpoints,” she said, to help guide those who believe their take on the issue is the only interpretation. After reading the report, such believers may decide “maybe it’s not that easy,” she said.
Securing 16,102 easements from 11,000 private landowners could provide certain access to the 8.3 million acres, the report states. At least 19 percent of the corners at issue are shared by oil, gas, energy, timber, or mining companies — not ranchers or farmers, the report states.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership focuses on voluntary programs and financial incentives that make more land accessible, Vice President Webster said. Although the conservation group has worked with onX on other public land issues, it was not directly involved with the corner crossing report. It is also not involved in the Carbon County litigation but agrees “more clarity on this issue would be beneficial,” he said.
Webster called corner crossing “an unsettled access dispute.”
Even if corner crossing is found to be legal, that wouldn’t solve all the issues, Webster said. With GPS tools, “you would need to rely on corners being surveyed,” and survey markers in place, he said. That’s because GPS devices alone are not accurate enough to guarantee one is not trespassing.
“This issue is not going to be fully resolved in the courts,” Webster said. “It’s going to require cooperating with landowners to make most of these lands accessible.”
“Focusing all the attention on a criminal case may make that harder,” he said of obtaining access agreements. “I recognize the importance of this [Carbon County] issue and am not downplaying that. But solving our larger access disputes is going to require working cooperatively with landowners.
“This stuff’s not simple and these challenges are not going to be solved by fighting,” he said.
Public access to public land may become easier with passage of the Modernizing Access to our Public Lands Act. It awaits President Joe Biden’s signature.
The act calls for public lands agencies to publish data “used to depict locations at which recreation uses are available to the public.” The act excludes from mapping “flowage easements” that are available to boaters on navigable waters.
“The federal and county road easement information is imperfect,” Webster said. “We realized 50,000 [Bureau of Land Management] and Forest Service easements recorded in law are still sitting in dusty filing cabinets.”
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso was “super helpful” with the legislation, Webster said. Barrasso wrote in an op-ed published in the Casper Star-Tribune that the mapping “will clearly tell the public which road or trail to use to access public lands.”
The legislation does not address corner crossing. Nevertheless, the mapping will “highlight the boundaries of where recreational hunting, fishing, and shooting are permitted,” Barrasso wrote.
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