Contentious corner crossing debate rages on
HB-1066, Public Access Landlocked Publicly Owned Lands was held over for action at the request of sponsor Colorado Rep. Brandi Bradley, R-Douglas, though comments were heard during the meeting of the Colorado House Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources committee. The bill would allow members of the public to “corner jump” from public land to public land and, as historically been the case in the West, this access has long been unresolved.
According to onX Maps, there are 101,000 corner-locked acres in Colorado and 489 access points that keep the public from public lands. In the U.S., there are 8.3 million acres of public land corner-locked by 27,120 corners. These acres share a property corner with 11,000 unique, private, land-owning entities, both people and companies. Of the 27,120 corners that separate two parcels of public land, at least 19% are shared by land owned by an oil, gas, energy, timber, or mining company rather than a farmer or rancher.
The checkerboard of public or private lands in the West dates back to the 1860s and remains contentious and unclear.
Those testifying in favor of HB-1066 urged lawmakers to “keep public lands in public hands.” Kevin Zepp, an outdoorsman, said public lands in Colorado are overcrowded and opening the corner-locked acres would ease this issue. He also said Colorado has approximately 24.5 million acres of public land, while the farming and ranching community has 32.5 million acres under their control, all while being about 1% of the state’s population.
“The 99% of us who don’t control large amounts of private land get to use 24.5 million acres, while the other 1% get to use 32.5 million acres, including being the gatekeepers to the land that is corner-locked,” he said.
Zepp said agriculture producers who own the private land that corner-lock public lands have “exclusive rights to your public lands.”
PRIVATE PROPERTY RIGHTS
Tyler Garrett, director of government relations, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, spoke in opposition to the bill based on landowners’ rights and expectation of privacy. He said it is particularly concerning when livestock is present, as they often congregate in corners.
Austin Vincent, Colorado Farm Bureau, director of state affairs and general counsel, said private property rights are codified in the state and they must remain intact.
“We support public access but think it’s important, especially with all the attacks on private property rights, that we defend our private property rights here in the state and would have been an erosion of those rights,” Vincent told The Fence Post.
Connie Hass, southern Colorado beef producer, said the bill allows for trespassing and opens landowners to a myriad of liability concerns. She said she and her husband often welcome hunters onto their private land with permission.
Don Shawcroft, Conejos County beef producer and former CFB president, said the potential ramifications of this bill are unknown. He admits access to corner-locked public lands is a problem, but said the private landowner is part of that public as well.
In Wyoming, Senate File 0056, prohibiting travel across private land for hunting purposes, has passed both the House and Senate. The act would expand the prohibition for entering private property without permission for hunting purposes to also prohibit traveling through private property. The language in the act clarifies, to “travel through or return across” requires “physically touching or driving on the surface of the private property.” Wyoming has 2.44 million corner-locked acres, more than any other state, resulting from a large railroad grant that traverses the state from east to west.
This act comes on the heels of a closely watched Wyoming corner crossing jury trial scheduled in Casper in June. The case involves four Missouri hunters who were accused of trespassing on Iron Bar Ranch near Elk Mountain while they were attempting a corner crossing in September of 2021. A Carbon County jury returned a not guilty verdict. However, Iron Bar Holdings, LLC, and owner Fred Eschelman of North Carolina, filed a civil lawsuit against the four hunters. Eschelman claims the hunter violated the ranch’s airspace when they used a ladder device to cross.
The defendants claimed Iron Bar and its owner and management violated the unlawful enclosures act of 1885, which prohibits landowners from using force, threats, intimidation, or other unlawful means to prevent public access to public lands adjoining their property.
According to reporting by Angus M. Thuermer, Jr., the hunters signed statements for a Wyoming Game and Fish officer. The 12-page statement alleges “an abhorrent amount of hunter harassment” while the group camped and hunted on Bureau of Land Management or state land for about nine days.
The hunters claimed their group was “watched, stalked and harassed [sic] by these groups of individuals constantly from very early morning till hours past dark.” They claim ranch employees swore and yelled at them, chased off a deer they were pursuing, and closely followed them on ATVs and in vehicles.
According to onX, a Wyoming hunter was charged in 2003 with trespassing when he stepped over a property corner pin from one public land section to another. He located the pin with a GPS device and did not receive permission to enter the adjacent private property. He was found not guilty, the judge ruling that he hadn’t entered the property’s air space to hunt, fish, or trap on the private property, but intended to hunt on public land.
In 2004, the Office of the Attorney General of Wyoming issued an opinion that the trial did not establish case law. According to onX:
“The opinion examined the difference between two different state statutes. One statute says a person cannot enter a private property with the intention to hunt, trap, or fish on private property without permission — this was the key phrase that acquitted the hunter. The other statute states a person is guilty of criminal trespass if the person “enters or remains on or in the land or premises of another person, knowing he is not authorized to do so…” The common dictionary definition of the word “enter” is even addressed in the official document. Ultimately, the Wyoming Attorney General at that time concluded that in any corner-crossing trial, “the factual circumstances would have to be examined” to determine if a violation of state statute had occurred.”
A bill was introduced to the Wyoming House of Representatives in 2011 that, like Senate File 0056, would have allowed a corner crossing if fences or the private land weren’t physically touched. That bill was killed in committee. Other bills have surfaced in other states, but none have become law.