A federal judge has ordered that a civil suit seeking damages from four Missouri hunters for allegedly trespassing by corner crossing on the Elk Mountain Ranch be transferred from state to federal district court. The move puts the issue of accessing some 1.6 million acres across the West in a venue where federal laws favoring access to public land may have more import.
Why it matters
Corner crossing is the act of stepping from one piece of public land to another where the public parcels share a four-way corner with two private parcels — all without setting foot on private land. As interpreted widely across the West, corner crossing constitutes trespass because a person must pass through the airspace over private property in the process.
Under that interpretation, 404,000 acres of public and state land across Wyoming and 1.6 million when also considering Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Utah are off limits to the public. Much of that land is enmeshed in a checkerboard pattern of ownership dating from the era of railroad construction.
Carbon County prosecutors filed criminal trespass charges against the four men in Carbon County Circuit Court and also want three of them convicted of trespassing to hunt. The charges stem from hunting trips the men took to Elk Mountain in 2020 and 2021 where they say they crossed corners to hunt on public land without setting foot on private property.
Elk Mountain Ranch owner Iron Bar Holdings, which lists billionaire Fred Eshelman as its manager, also sued the four in Carbon County District Court seeking civil damages. An attorney for the hunters last month filed a petition to transfer the civil case from state jurisdiction to the U.S. District Court for Wyoming where federal public access laws may hold more sway.
Who said what
“The clerk of the district court is hereby advised that jurisdiction over the parties and subject matter of the above-entitled action is deemed removed from the district court to the United States District Court for the District of Wyoming…” Chief U.S. District Judge Scott W. Skavdahl wrote in an order filed Thursday. The order becomes effective once the hunters’ attorney files documents in state district court, and Iron Bar will have an opportunity to ask Skavdahl to send the case back to the state venue.
Iron Bar “has a right to exclusive control, use, and enjoyment of its Property, which includes the airspace at the corner, above the Property … the surface of the land and the subsurface below it,” the ranch owner states in its civil suit. The hunters, who have asked that the civil and criminal cases be dismissed, say Iron Bar’s interpretation runs afoul of laws passed by Congress, including the Unlawful Inclosures Act that generally prohibits landowners from fencing people out of public property.
“[S]tate legislatures, state executives, and state judiciaries may not grant rights, privileges, or powers to private parties regarding the use of or access to federally owned public lands located within a state that would conflict with federal legislation enacted by Congress pursuant to the Property Clause,” the hunters’ petition to transfer states.
What else you need to know
The Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee has proposed that trespass be its No. 1 topic for study before lawmakers begin their next session in 2023. The overseeing Management Council will consider the request April 8. The committee wants to investigate the issue “including trespass by drone and a comparison of criminal trespass with trespass for hunting purposes.”