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.

“Whatever comes next, this legal gray area could very well remain clear as fog for decades to come.”

onX report

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.

Land records, easements

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.”

A corner that’s in dispute in the Carbon County case is identified by a survey marker. (GoFundMe)

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% of the corners at issue are shared by oil, gas, energy, timber, or mining companies — not ranchers or farmers, the report states.

Feds to map public lands

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.

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. It’s a wonder why the Wyoming G F P ever set up the public lands the way they have. If the public land does not touch a road, it is not accessible to anyone but the landowner! Is this the best use of Wyoming tax dollars, do the people of Wyoming know this?
    Thank you, Todd Meyer

  2. I am seventy-five years old. When I was a kid ranchers were required to post land if they did not want others to hunt it. Back then I had free range to hunt almost anywhere. On posted land you had to get permission from the landowner to hunt on that land. You had access to most land on public roads. That has all changed now. A hunter or sportsman has to know if he is trespassing. A few companies now provide GPS devices so that it is possible to know who owns what. I hunted from the time I was legally able. I never had a problem. Now I am afraid to go hunting. A couple of years ago I entered a piece of land to get permission from my friend. Two of his partners stopped me before I could asked and told me I was trespassing. They turned me around and told me they would get the sherriff to arrested me. I later talked to my friend and he told me people had entered his land and stollen pump jacks and he was no longer allowing trespass. I respect his rights as I always have in the past. Now I can buy a license at reduced rates as a pioneer but am afraid to hunt because I am afraid I might unknowingly trespass. I went ahead an bought licenses feeling the Wyoming Game and Fish was good place to donate to. I respect the landowners rights. They work hard to take care of their land. Others have abused their lands in the past. Those of us that respect thier rights have lost and no longer get to hunt because of the abuses of others.

  3. I can’t comprehend somebody owning the airspace above the land they own. Just like said here already , you can float through private property on a river as long as you don’t dock on the private land . So that tells me the water is a public byway. What’s the difference with airspace ? Do they own the air, the water in the river ? What if somebody flys a plane, helicopter or ultralight light across a corner of private land, are they trespassing ? I think the person blocking public land either considers it their private hunting, fishing, grazing property or likes charging a trespass fee. Or maybe a power trip. They should be getting charged for blocking access to public land. OnX completed a survey of land locked public land in the U.S.. Over 8 million acres. 4.4 million is in Wyoming itself. Huh ? Something is really wrong here ….

    1. You’re correct something IS really wrong here. Your statement of 4.4 million acres in Wyoming is incorrect, reread the article.

  4. I wonder that if the rancher who was leasing the grazing rights had to pay in to a public fund (let’s say 50% of money made if 50% of the ranching area was BLM) would the rancher allow access to abolish that “fee” for using public land for grazing?

  5. Simple Solution: If the general public cannot access public, then the adjoining property owner also is denied entry. This means that the landowner can’t graze the land for pennies/acres, must fence their livestock off this land, can’t consider the land as loan collateral and can’t outfit on the land. They need to stay off it, too. Fair and equitable….no?

  6. “Trespassing on airspace” is is ridiculous petty BS. Does the rancher somehow owns the air? What if the parcel of air so “harmed” out in the middle of nowhere for a few seconds by the body of the so-called “trespasser” blows in the next second over the public land in the Wyoming wind? Then it is public air and the issue seems moot. If I fly my Cessna over the private land, am I a trespasser? Even if I just “cut a corner”? Good Lord.

  7. Any company or ranch that blocks public access to the public should lose the right to
    lease the land for grazing.

  8. If public land is going to be landlocked private land owners should be locked out as well otherwise the government just made their ranches bigger tax free air space has its place for owners privacy from drones but foot access not touching private property come on really

  9. Do some historical research on the role of the ‘ Landed Aristochracy ‘ in the Old World, specifically Western Europe. All of what we are discussing here today traces back to medieval and feudal times… the fiefdoms, the petty lords , barons , vassals . When the Euros colonized the Americas, they brought the principle of landed aristochracy with them. All land was owned by the Crown, the Church , or the feudal lords.
    We still suffer that …

  10. I think much of the issue for private landowners who control access to public lands is the blatant abuse of access privilege by many of the folks who want to access it. A trip to the Bighorn Mountains in the middle of summer will give you an idea of how that looks: untended campfires, garbage everywhere, torn up roads and new paths made with their vehicles, human waste and toilet paper blowing in the wind. If you seriously want to have access to this land then get serious about how it will be managed to prevent damage by the public.

    1. Linda, a herd of starving cattle will destroy that land a lot quicker then a part time camper. Apparently to you, the landowner should have first and the only dib to pummel the public land into submission. Let’s not forget these same ranchers also create ruts with their vehicles, creating new and unwanted roads and some use these public lands as their own private landfills. Most recreationalists care for the land, many of our welfare ranchers don’t and will use it like a rented mule.

  11. The private property owner has full enjoyment and ownership of the surface and a certain amount of air space above their land. It’s almost impossible to not intrude on the private land in this scenario. You wouldn’t want a drone buzzing right out your window because it’s in the “airspace” would you? The state statute for trespassing says entering onto private land is trespass. These people entered part of the private land. This isn’t just about ranchers wanting to make public lands their own personal feed lot. The Elk Mountain Ranch is not a working cattle ranch, they don’t have any cows. Who knows what they do with it? Maybe that’s why they don’t want trespassers around. And to another point, if you want the definition of trespassing changed stop electing all these ranchers and hobby farms who identify as ranchers to the legislature. This is not an agricultural state. Consider the background of who we are electing. People that control a large amount of land can be a pain for the energy industry too. Just ask any company in the Powder River Basin who gets a federal or state mineral lease under privately held land. Dealing with the absurdity they want in a surface use lease is a pain and hampers development of the minerals you all own that a company wants to develop and pay taxes on.

  12. I think it is interesting that our river and stream laws allow access over private lands unless you set a foot on to the soil beneath it. Seems like a similar case could be made for the “air” above private lands in the case of corner crossings.

      1. The trees are attached to the ground same as your house is. These things are “IN” the air space but are “NOT” the air space. I don’t see your point.

        1. The key is you can not “ enter” private property without permission. Secondly the point they crossed, was over a “corner marker” (in) the ground.

  13. 2.4 million acres of public land is landlocked and controlled by a select few. 2.4 million acres, that is larger than Yellowstone Nat’l Park! Let that soak in a minute. The select few get to lease this land for pennies to the acre and profit handsomely by outfitting the public’s wildlife. No wonder the Freddie Eshelman’s of the world are fighting to keep control of this almost free to them public land. Good job WyoFile, you’ve gained a few haters but a whole lot more appreciate readers because of your exposure to the corner crossing fiasco

    1. Do you realize of the 2.4 million acres, over 50% is State Trust Land ?

      In Wyoming State Trust Lands, are not managed for Recreation.

  14. Righting this absurd situation is a great issue for a Wyoming House or Senate candidate to run on. Barrasso can blow smoke and take credit for better mapping, but I doubt he, Lummis, Cheney or Gordon would work for substantive change, lest they antagonize the rich donors who benefit from the current law.

  15. I very much appreciate WyoFile giving this important issue such robust coverage. I wish other large state and regional papers would do the same. The issue has national implications that will be far reaching for decades to come, but they don’t seem to care. Thanks for seeing the big picture here WyoFile!

  16. If a property line between private and government property can be used to prevent one side from access, why would it not prevent access by private owner to access to the government side via that corner? It seems to me that use of public land should be available for all Americans, whether that land is federal, state, or county. Tax dollars from all of us support it.

  17. Some of those walk-in areas leased from WY G&F are pure junk. There are 2-3 of these walk-ins between Burlington and Otto, Wyoming that are nothing more than plowed up dirt. Apparently the local WY G&F access coordinator does not know what good wildlife habit is and these leases end up being nothing more than a subsidy payment to the dirt farmer. The walk-in program could be a good thing, but when the WY G&F leases up a bunch of junk out there, it does no one any good, other then the farmer getting a hefty check by renting out some land that has very little to nada habitat or wildlife.

    1. No kidding! Many of the Cody region Walk In parcels make absolutely no sense. In fact, many of these leased parcels have no vegetation, habitat or wildlife to hunt. Game and Fish love to pat themselves on the back but with personal experience many of us can tell you that the the hunting and fishing goes downhill more and more by the year, yet the G & F vehicles get newer and shinier. It must be a lot easier for the Cody access coordinator to drive down a paved highway and hand checks out to row croppers that plow the soil into talcum powder come fall vs. seeking out bonafide properties that would offer good hunting opportunities.

  18. Say it as it is. Common sense tells the average person that crossing a corner is not trespassing. The dispute exists because vested interests wish to continue to hijack public lands for profit as they’ve done for decades. This theft must end! Public means “everyone”. Profit in and of itself has no morality, profit’s constraints are those imposed by the concepts of social fairness and Justice.

    1. Why is this called Public Lands? These are Public lands owned and maintained by Wyoming tax payers. The power of wealth can and does decide the right of access on this property. The use of legal terms such as “Airspace”, requires wealth.