Four hunters contesting criminal trespass charges in Carbon County have pushed the debate about corner crossing — stepping over private property to reach public land — into the judicial system, with implications that could impact 1.6 million landlocked acres in five western states.

Carbon County authorities cited the four men for criminal trespass Oct. 4, according to a clerk at the circuit court in Rawlins. All entered pleas of not guilty, according to the clerk and others close to the case. Criminal trespass carries a penalty of up to $750 and six months in jail upon conviction.

The conflict grows out of the Western checkerboard land-ownership pattern set during the territorial settlement and railroad building days of the 1800s. At issue in Wyoming is whether hunters and others are trespassing if they step from one parcel of public land to another over a four-corner intersection with two private parcels — without touching private land.

In Wyoming 404,000 public acres are “landlocked” by the checkerboard pattern under any convention that views corner crossing as illegal. Many say the issue remains unsettled with no Wyoming statute explicitly addressing corner crossing.

But if the issue turns on federal law or is settled in a federal court, a decision could impact almost 1.6 million acres when also counting Utah, Idaho, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico, according to an assessment by the Center for Western Priorities.

The citations spurred the nonprofit Wyoming Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and others to launch a GoFundMe campaign to pay legal fees, assembling 1,400 supporters who have donated $63,265 to the legal fight.

“These four hunters took every precaution to make certain private land was not touched,” the GoFundMe page, launched on Nov. 19, states. “We believe this act does not violate law or cause any negative impacts to private landowners and their use of their property.”

Space vs. land

Attorneys for the men would not comment on the substance of the case but observers say the four appear to want to address the issue in court.

“It certainly is my understanding, my perception, the way this is proceeding — a Wyoming GoFundMe — that their intent is a broader showdown on the corner crossing principle,” said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association. Any assertion that corner crossing is legal, “that’s something we will resist very strongly,” he said.

Given that the men have pleaded not guilty, retained attorneys, received fundraising aid and public support, “they’re not going to try to reach a plea agreement,” Mark Squillace, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School opined.

The checkerboard pattern of land ownership around Elk Mountain in Carbon County, as depicted by a GIS program. The unshaded 640-acre sections are BLM lands. (Carbon County)

The men face charges of violating Wyoming statute 6-3-03, according to the circuit court in Rawlins. Under that law, a person is guilty of criminal trespass “if he enters or remains on or in the land or premises of another person, knowing he is not authorized to do so, or after being notified to depart or to not trespass…”

The men assured Jeff Muratore, one of the GoFundMe organizers, that they never set foot on private property, he said. In a photograph posted on the fundraising webpage purporting to show a corner in question, a chain and wire connects two fence posts on the kitty-corner private sections above a survey marker that presumably indicates the four corners’ common point. “No trespassing” signs for the Elk Mountain Ranch hang on the private-land fence posts.

The Elk Mountain Ranch covers more than 20,000 acres, according to Carbon County property records, and “landlocks” numerous 640-acre sections of public U.S. Bureau of Land Management property. The men used a ladder to climb over the fence-post obstacle, according to accounts.

A person answering the phone at the Elk Mountain Ranch would not comment.

“We see the corner crossing as a violation of private property rights,” Magagna said. Property owners have “a certain amount of space above the land,” that makes it physically impossible to corner-cross without violating that space, he said.

Even though there may be no physical damage, “it’s still a violation,” he said.

But Squillace said the defendants may find protection in the federal Unlawful Inclosure of Public Lands Act of 1885. That law, in short, prohibits fencing on private property from obstructing “any person” from peaceably entering public land. Penalties for a violation can reach $1,000 and a maximum of one year imprisonment.

Private property or public access

Attorneys can argue different interpretations of the UIA, but Squillace said “it absolutely applies,” to the corner crossing case. Blocking public access is a “clear violation of the Unlawful Inclosure Act.”

“The whole point,” he said, “is that you can’t prevent the public’s access to public lands.”

Further, if the photograph in question is an accurate depiction of the corner, “I think what the ranchers have done here should be stopped,” he said. “They should not be allowed to fence off public land.”

“These four hunters took every precaution to make certain private land was not touched.”

GoFundMe pitch for donations

Magagna said the UIA does not apply to corner crossing. “I don’t see that’s a relevant issue,” he said, “because fencing your private land is not under that unlawful enclosure of public land.”

Both sides can point to precedents in Wyoming. Magagna references Leo Sheep Co. v. the United States, in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the BLM did not have a right to a corner-crossing road.

Although the Leo case was about a road, “our position is the principle is the same,” Magagna said. “The physical damage would be different, but the principle would be the same.”

Squillace references the Taylor Lawrence case of the late 1980s, in which the Wyoming rancher built a 28-mile-long fence across checkerboard corners that kept pronghorn antelope from migrating to winter habitat near the Red Desert. Courts decided the UIA applied to the fence and that it was illegal.

In ordering Lawrence’s fence to be removed, the courts relied on a 1912 precedent involving a rancher named Stoddard who built a fence that excluded others’ cattle from reaching public land. In Stoddard, the court posited that the UIA was “intended to prevent the obstruction of free passage or transit for any and all lawful purposes over public lands,” according to an analysis of the legal issue.

“I would argue this is really a federal question.” Squillace said. ”A federal court has jurisdiction.”

If Squillace were representing the men, he said, he would move the case to federal court. “I wouldn’t allow the state to rule.”

Squillace dismissed the concept of an inviolate, invisible vertical plane above a property line through which one cannot intrude. That so-called ad coelum doctrine holds that when you own property you own down to the depths and up to the sky.

“There are limits to that doctrine,” he said. Corner crossing “is such a minor kind of intrusion [and] it’s necessary to access public land — I can’t imagine a court would use that doctrine.”

Feds, lawmakers punt

For its part, the BLM sidesteps the issue. “There is no agency policy regarding corner crossings,” spokesman Brad Purdy wrote in an email, “so it would fall to the State of Wyoming to determine if crossing from one parcel of public land to another via a corner is trespassing or not.”

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department relies on a Wyoming Attorney General’s opinion from 2004. “‘Corner crossing’ from one parcel of public land to another in order to hunt that other public parcel, depending on the factual situation involved, may not violate the game and fish trespass statute,” the agency states on its website, “but may be a criminal trespass violation.”

The hunters were cited for violating Wyoming criminal trespass laws.

The agency “​​handles trespass issues on a case-by-case/ county-by-county basis,” Rick King, chief of wildlife, wrote in a statement.

Wyoming has not seen fit to resolve the corner crossing question. Legislators in 2011 killed a bill that would have explicitly made corner crossing legal. It went down 9-0 in the Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee.

The unsuccessful bill would have “subject[ed] ownership of airspace above lands and waters to such [corner] crossings” and made those crossings legal, according to the bill’s introductory paragraph. Passionate debate presaged the bill’s demise.

“They were packed like sardines in the committee room,” said Stan Blake, a state representative and member of the committee at the time.  “All the hunters and conservation people, they were in favor of it,” the Green River resident said. Their argument, among others: “You don’t really touch anything” when corner-crossing, Blake said.

Ranchers made their winning ad coelom case, he said. “You draw that [property] line and it goes straight up into infinity,” Blake said, paraphrasing the argument. “You cannot cross that line.”

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, (R-Cheyenne) recalls unified opposition. “Back then it was called ‘ag unity’ where all ag groups acted in coordination to support or oppose certain bills — which made it very difficult to get things passed when it appeared every group was against it in the agriculture committee,” he wrote in an email.

“If the speaker [of the House] had wanted the bill to get to the floor he would have sent it to [the Travel Recreation Wildlife Committee],” Zwonitzer said.

“There was a lot of emotion on both sides, but it went down hard,” he said. “Hard enough that I don’t believe it’s been considered since.”

Magagna said the Legislature could be prompted to act — in favor of landowners. “Should we get an unacceptable [court] decision, that certainly is an option we would be looking at,” he said of landowner-favoring legislation.

Hunters have options, Magagna said. “There are tools out there to achieve access,” he said, including by requesting it from landowners or through the Game and Fish Department’s Access Yes program, which seeks public hunting access to private property. “We encourage our members to participate in those programs.

“There are ways of working together to increase access to private land and across private land to public land where that’s necessary,” he said. The GoFundMe campaign will put excess donations not used for legal defense toward the Access Yes program, according to the website.

Attorneys for the Missouri defendants, Brad Cape, Phillip Yoemans, John Slowensky and Zach Smith, are scheduled to meet with prosecutors early next year for what the court said will be a settlement conference, though there’s no indication any settlement is in the works. No trial date has been set, according to a court official.

Meantime access to 404,000 Wyoming acres 20 miles north and south of the Union Pacific line — and 1,583,000 million landlocked federal public checkerboard acres across the West — remains largely controlled by private landowners and local and state law enforcement and judicial institutions.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. As a rancher and yes, with BLM permits, I have no problem with corner crossing to public lands. It is unfortunate that all ranchers are portrayed as the bad guys here. Our ranch allows hunting if asked for permission. But what I am seeing is allotment fences cut for access from public land to public land! I am responsible for those fences, have you added that to your $1.35 aum fee? It is pretty expensive to up-keep fences. Then because the fence is cut it is my problem to secure my cattle back or face a trespass fee. We have had this done three times. I also have seen 2 abandoned RVs left on public land, that someone has to clean up and haul off. This year 2 tents with all camping supplies and trash were left on public land for someone to clean up. We cleaned up some of it, for you know the BLM won’t and it appears that public wont either for it sat that way till way for 2 months. Next is fire pits left here and there and everywhere on Public land with glass, cans, and trash that didn’t burn. How about four roads around one mud puddle on a road on public land? And this is in one small area! My point is that there is a lot of people at fault here, and I really wonder if I should provide access anymore to my private land when many (not all) will not even take good care of their public land.

    1. This is why, in most cases, ranchers are the best stewards of the land. Public access generally means public damage of the resources. Its very difficult to ranch in the western portions of Wyoming where there is a lot of public land; go to the eastern side of the state where it is predominantly private land, and the problems disappear. I’ve said it before, the smart money like Ted Turner invests their money in states like Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas, Texas, etc. – who wants to buy the problems associated with public land. By restricting access, ranchers are minimizing problems associated with the public although they can selectively allow access to a limited number of trusted people. Would you like to ranch on our southern border with Mexico?? No way. More reasons why land withdrawals, restricted non-motorized areas, ACECs, etc.are necessary to protect the public lands from the public.

  2. I worked for BLM for 35 years. I remember a 1980s Administrative Law Judge or Interior Board Of Land Appeals ruling supporting the Winnemucca District Managers Decision, concerning the Unlawful Inclosure Of Public Lands Act of 1885. This is where Bill and John Casey, ranchers fenced off public land access in checkerboard areas SW of Winnemucca, Nevada. Since I left the District I’m not sure how far up the hearings process this case went. But, usually John Casey appealed most everything to at least Federal District Court. However, I know the BLM’s decision was upheld by the courts. Therefore, I’m surprised BLM had no position concerning the fencing off of public land access. The fencing off access to public lands is the real issue by private land owners. The corner crossings issue, seems to me to be a side issue to the access to public lands.

  3. Property owners are on land stolen from the Indians. The land should be confiscated by the federal government, and adjudicated as to future public administration, including repatriation in trust to federally recognized Tribes.

  4. Magagna promotes Wyoming G & F “walk-in” areas? Some of those leased parcels are junkyards, wastelands and pretty much devoid of wildlife. Yet, the enrolling landowner can ca$h a pretty hefty check for his/her moonscape.

    Let’s meet in the middle: If a landowner will not allow access to a checkerboarded parcel of public land, how ’bout they also would not be allowed to graze it down to the dirt for $1.35 an A/U? Better yet, the adjoining landowner shouldn’t be allowed to access the public land, just like the rest of us taxpayers

  5. A property line that goes “straight up into infinity ” means that every aircraft that flies across that property, no matter the altitude, is trespassing, unless there is a citeable law that excuses such activity.

  6. Are the airlines fined for crossing this imaginary property line to infinity or do they have to request permission to fly over it? Why can’t people travel on section lines. Some states allow this. When you’re allowed to travel on section lines, everyone has access to the public land. Maybe this needs to be introduced or a petition filed for a vote by the citizens of the great state of Wyoming. These ranchers don’t want it because if they have landlocked BLM, they don’t have to compete with other ranchers who would be able to than bid on the BLM because they would now have access. I’m sure the outfitters who lease of blocks of land with BLM on it , can lease the BLM for outfitting and not have to compete with another outfitter for the rights to this land. All got the minimum bid of $1.35/acre. What a rip off to the taxpayers. The billionaire that filed this lawsuit isn’t even a resident of Wyoming and is using county funds to push this case. Did the county attorney got a donation from them? Probably worth looking into. Property realtors even advertise tracts of property with landlocked public land, like it’s an asset to the new owner. This is nothing but a way to keep the public off of public land so that they can not hunt it. There is no intent to trespass and do anything to hurt the private landowner. The next thing that’s going to happen is the landowners are going to put telephone poles up at the corner to make it impossible for you to use a step ladder to avoid trespassing. People need to watch who they voting for. Ask the legislator if he is for the Stockmens association or if they’re for the common good of the people of Wyoming. If you can’t answer the question, run for office yourself, or at the very least don’t vote for them. Every year, somewhere in the country, every taxpayer has to pay into the tax pool, and the government pays farm aid, disaster aid, drowth aid. access should be tied to these payments. If you don’t like it, don’t take the taxpayers money. These people are all land wealthy or millionaires and the guy that barely makes enough money to get by, as the pay into the tax pool, and give these millionaires money because they can’t make it year after year. It’s a joke. Than these landowners God 10 years before they’re going to die, transfer all the land and assets into a child’s name so that on paper they don’t on anything. Then when it’s time to go to a nursing home, the taxpayer that doesn’t have much had to take care of these people who are now a ward of the state because their assets have been liquidated five years before they went into the home. They continue to get away with any and everything they want and they’re so greedy they’re worried about some poor haunter that has to hike to get anywhere, Well these landowners can drive anywhere off the trail they want and shoot it anything they want. The tide is changing. The common man is figuring it out. It might not change on this case, but it’s going to change.

  7. Great comments folks. I think it makes a big difference which way you cross the corner – under one scenario you would be crossing from private land to private land which would seem to fall under Wyoming trespass laws. However, if you cross the corner from Federal land to Federal land that would seem to be under federal law and would need to be argued in Federal court not state court. The corner in the pic showed a nice brass corner marker – in many of these situations in Wyoming the corners are not marked and the Federal land is fenced in by private land which makes it difficult for the public to know where they are. The problems in the checker board lands will continue until large land swaps consolidate the land into large tracts of private land and large tracts of BLM land. Its time to get started on the land swaps which would eliminate these corner problems. Please swap.

  8. I’m guessing someone with this ranch must have seen these 4 people do this and contacted the Sheriff’s office. Law enforcement is not obligated to write a citation for every dumb call they get they have discretion. The prosecutor likewise can use their discretion in deciding to go forward with the charges. The people of Carbon County should contact the Sheriff and County Attorney and tell them to not cater to whiny millionaires. If a regular guy in town called because someone cut across their yard would a criminal trespass be pursued? It is very doubtful. Contact these elected officials and voice your opinion. Better yet vote them out. Stop wasting money pursuing nonsense charges.

    1. This issue is going to become an important court case. I wonder if the four men let the sheriff know what they were going to do so they would get arrested. Having law enforcement present would also provide the four men a degree of safety in case things got out-of-hand.

  9. If this case is successful then the next one should be a challenge to Wyoming’s illegal river access trespass laws. It has been established in numerous states that there is no ability to block access below the high water mark on navigable rivers under the interstate commerce clause of the US constitution. It was successfully challenged in both Missouri and Montana numerous other states
    on that basis. The current law blocks what could be a flourishing float culture and business opportunity in Wyoming. Agriculture has had a disproportionate influence on everything in this State for too long. Its time people woke up to what that industry is doing to ripoff the State and its Taxpayers.

  10. My in-laws have deeded and state grazing lease that join each other. We used to have a lot of trouble with public abuse because part of the lease could be accessed via public highway. Beer parties, trash, bullet damage and even a reservior polluted when an old car was pushed off a hill into the water. I joined the Sheridan County Land Users Committee both as a private citizen who enjoyed hunting and a representative of rancher’s interest in protecting public land from being abused. PLUC was successful in mitigating many of these problems and managed to get the $750 fine introduced to give law enforcement some teeth in the matter. PLUC used GPS technology to mark un-fenced boundry lines between private and public land with signs to keep people from “straying” onto private land. This was all done with volunteers. PLUC also marked walk-in areas accessed from public roadways. One rancher purpossly purchased a strip on land 40′ wide parallel to a state highway to thwart “walk-ins” One hunter launched his paraglider off the highway, flew over the strip, got his deer, and flew it back out piece by piece. I suspect that eventually drones that can carry people will be the next thing. I believe hunters and recreationists need to get together with ranchers to reach deals that will satisfy both. PLUC did a great job of hashing out these difficulties, but there is still a lot of work to be done by dedicated people who are not afraid to spend some time in volunteer work to find solutions.

  11. I am surprised that no one has mentioned that the BLM or the Forest Service (FS) could initiate access to public land by eminent domain. This is an issue than rarely or never receives any attention in BLMs numerous and voluminous land use planning efforts. In fact, this issue is so important, it should be a major discussion item in current and future land use planning. If the public remains quiet, the BLM is not going to bring it up on their own, other than some minor lip service.

    The BLM in Wyoming has never been proactive nor would they likely take a legal step to enhance outdoor recreation through new access routes, when private landowners do not voluntarily cooperate, even when there is a good reason to do so. Maybe the next article in wyofile on access should seek to find out what the BLM and FS in Wyoming has accomplished over the last 50 years to provide access for outdoor recreation that required crossing a non cooperative landowner?

    I would also point out that the opportunity to access thousands of acres of public land can be obtained by rerouting some existing roads around private property. The BLM does need anyone’s permission to initiate rerouting. Its already been done at least once before in Carbon County. The BLM just needs management support and complete the required paperwork analysis.

    1. Vernon: Eminent domain should not be used unless the public lands which need access constitute a large block of contiguous public land of 5,000 acres or more. It wouldn’t be worth it for small tracts of public land like 640 acres. In Hot Springs County the BLM, USFS and the county acquired access to the Shoshone National Forest in the mid 1980s which required crossing private land of the LU Ranch. It was contested but eventually easements were acquired and today it is the only public access in Hot Springs County providing the public access to the forest and our only trailhead. However, access to 100,000s of acres of forest, including wilderness, was established. Park County on the other hand, has something like 23 trailheads which provide access to the forest for the public ( most of the public land is non-motorized so trailheads imply horse access ). Large blocks of federal land do need access but not the small isolated tracts ( small in Wyoming means anything less than 5,000 acres ).

  12. Magagna is at it again. Give us more money, or in this case, land, and get out. Go. Just give us more. And stay home.

    It has been the public land rancher’s mantra for nearly 150 years.

  13. I would like to see coon jump, pogo stick, and pole vault crossings tested in court. While these options do not meet the infinity rule, they may prove to be practical corner jumping methods that will leave ranchers unharmed while allowing access to our PUBLIC lands.

    1. Would it not be possible to just step across a corner, being careful to keep within the public sections whenever the foot touched the ground? I really see no need for pole vaults or such things. People should be able to just cross public land to a corner, and step katy-corner into the next public section without actually touching the private land.

  14. Wyoming ranchers block access to more public land than any other state (more the twice as much as the next highest state). This is wrong on so many levels, particularly when one considers that Wyoming ranchers receive more state and federal subsidies (taxpayer subsidies) per capita than any other state.

    1. According to the Environmental Working Group, from 1995 to 2020, taxpayers payed out $1.2 Billion to WY farmers and ranchers.
      This includes:
      Disaster payments: $ 381.2 million
      Livestock subsidies: 266 million
      CRP: 183 million
      Wool subsidies: 21.4 million
      Sheep meat subsidies: 7.4 million

      That is a lot of money. These payments should be tied to farmers and ranchers receiving these payment to allow access to public lands that they believe they “control”. It is past time to “pay back” the taxpayers.

  15. There is no other reason landowner interests oppose corner crossing other than to keep the public off of public owned lands. The act of corner cross causes no harm, damage nor does it interfere with the landowners use of their property. It may interfere with the landowners idea that they have exclusive use of the public land.
    Private air space has historically only been protected when the intervention into that air space harms or interferes with the landowner and/or their interests.

  16. The idea that property lines go to the sky is absurd. This would mean commercial jets constantly trespassed against hundreds of landowners virtually every hour as they traverse the country at 500+ mph.

    What drives this claim is, I suspect a sense of entitlement on the part of private landowners towards the public lands that they have long had exclusive access to.
    After successfully land locking and essentially privatizing federal sections for decades, some private owners probably believe the public land they fence off is or at least should be their own private property.

    This wouldn’t be wholly unreasonable if two conditions could be convincingly shown to exist:

    a) That allowing the public onto heretofore off-limits public lands somehow damaged the business interests of the adjoining private owners

    b) That the private owners required sole access to the public lands in order to carry out activities that constituted a higher, better use of the land as judged by benefits to the public at large.

    Neither condition really exists. In fact my observation of the ranching industry in Wyoming is that it mostly consists of:
    1. Out-of-state owners seeking the biggest private reserves they can acquire, or
    2. Old ranches that are barely profitable especially if various federal subsidies (like nearly free use of public grazing allotments) are considered, and that generate minimal numbers of jobs that often pay barely above the minimum wage – in those cases where the workers are actually legally entitled to work.

    Given the above, private landowners have no right to prohibit reasonable access to public land even if that means a significant path across private land. This goes beyond mere corner cutting.

    But the problem is that the state legislature is completely dominated by the ag industry. This is why dams that benefit only a few dozen landowners get built for hundreds of $millions while kindergartens and health care go unfunded.

    The concerns and rights of the work-a-day citizens won’t receive any more consideration on this issue than anything else in this state – not until the people of Wyoming start electing leaders who actually care about ALL of their constituents.

    1. I totally agree. A child walking down the sidewalk extending her arm over my property in Casper could be cited for criminal trespass under Mr. Magagna’s interpretation of the law. This “logic” totally defies reason.

  17. “You draw that [property] line and it goes straight up into infinity,” Blake said, paraphrasing the argument. “You cannot cross that line.”

    B.S. Planes cross over private property all the time. Seems like a simple fence ladder that crosses the corner is entirely within the scope of public access.

  18. Issue goes back forever.

    There is no rational reason to oppose corner crossing except to keep people off public lands. Selfish property owners want the public land for themselves. That is the heart of the issue. Often they want to charge hunters for private access to public lands. Follow the money.

    What great harm happens when you cross a corner? I can think of none. Did anyone have a good one?

    1. Well, in order to access a private land locked blm parcel corner in my residential neighborhood, a person has to drive over a half a mile down a private road and either park on private property or drive up a hill where there isn’t a trail or road of any kind. The individual property owners in here own the road from one lot to the next and pay for the maintenance of it, never mind the liability and security concerns associated with leaving OUR road open to the public domain by not closing the gate. Those are all good reasons for not supporting “corner jumping”.