A North American nonprofit that claims 350,000 members and supporters wants to join a civil suit on the side of four hunters accused of trespassing by corner crossing at Elk Mountain Ranch in Carbon County.
Backcountry Hunters & Anglers filed papers in Wyoming’s U.S. District Court asking that it be allowed to join the civil suit brought by the ranch owner against four Missouri men who corner crossed to hunt public land in 2020 and 2021.
“BHA and its members have a strong interest in seeing the issues surrounding ‘corner crossing’ resolved under federal law to clarify nationally the legality of moving across federal public lands that intersect private lands at a corner,” BHA attorney Eric Hanson wrote in his request to join the civil case.
Corner crossing is the act of stepping from one parcel of public land to another at the common corner with two parcels of private property — without touching private land — where the parcels are arranged in an ownership pattern resembling a checkerboard.
BHA would draw on its experience and proposed that it be allowed to officially file a brief that “offers a perspective that will assist the Court” as the court decides whether to retain the case or send it back to Wyoming District Court in Carbon County where it was originally filed. Iron Bar Holdings, a company owned by North Carolina businessman Fred Eshelman, filed the civil suit in February in state court asking for a judge to declare that the hunters trespassed and to empanel a jury only to assess damages against them.
Until BHA filed the legal papers, the hunters funded their defense with the help of only the Wyoming chapter of the BHA. Wyoming BHA raised $71,460 through a GoFundMe campaign to support the hunters after they pleaded not guilty to criminal trespass charges brought by the Carbon County prosecutor.
A jury found them not guilty of those criminal charges April 29, leaving Eshelman’s civil suit as the remaining action in the legal arena.
If the larger BHA becomes involved the hunters would have broader support. The organization has chapters in 48 states plus three Canadian provinces or territories.
“We’re a larger organization,” Land Tawney, president and CEO of BHA said Wednesday. “This is a priority. We’re going to make sure we carry this case through to the end.”
BHA touts the slogan “keep public land in public hands,” as it states in its request to be allowed to join the federal civil suit. The brief it proposes to officially file “highlights the amount of federal land across the country rendered inaccessible by [trespass] allegations like [Eshelman’s],” attorney Hanson states.
The brief would aid the federal court because it “explores the legal landscape of federal law from past to present related to corner crossing, including those [issues] involving questions of trespass, and examines the policy implications of deciding the issue based on federal law.”
The proposed brief, which Hanson filed along with BHA’s request to join the suit, argues that the case should remain in federal court. Eshelman wants the case returned to the Wyoming court system, saying he only raised claims under Wyoming law.
Despite the not-guilty criminal trespass verdict in Carbon County Circuit Court, “the legality of corner crossing is an unresolved issue” across the West, the proposed brief states. The federal court “is in the best position to resolve the dispute,” the brief states.
Eshelman’s arguments that the men were trespassing “necessarily implicate any attempt to move between public land at corners,” BHA states. Consequently, the civil case should be resolved “using the lens of federal law as it applies to public land access.”
BHA comes down on the side of the public. “No individual monied interest should have the right to restrict the public from stepping across the corner of one adjoining parcel of federal public land to another, commonly known as “corner crossing,” the proposed brief states.
Hanson outlines settled cases and laws that could have a bearing on accessing 8.3 million acres of public land across the West by corner crossing, some 2.44 million acres in Wyoming. Those cases and law stretch across time from the 1885 Unlawful Inclosures Act to cases in 1897, 1914 and 1985.
Eshelman’s civil case raises the “significant and complicated question of whether federal law allows private landowners to close access to millions of acres of public land by threat[en]ing or suing for trespass” in corner-crossing situations, Hanson writes.
“A private landowner with half the ownership of a corner should not have a veto over access by the owner of the other half of the corner — namely the government, and by extension, its citizens,” the brief states. “Many thousands of BHA members, as well as millions of public land recreators, have an interest in the determination of Plaintiff’s and Defendants’ respective rights in this case under federal law.”
In supporting the hunters in federal court, Tawney said his group is not in the business of steamrolling over private property.
“We’re just trying to find a solution to corner crossing,” he said. “We want to make sure we maintain and respect private property rights and at the same time the rights of the public to access their public land.
“While we don’t necessarily have that solution today, we’re definitely stepping up our efforts here,” he said. “There’s a high degree of interest outside of Wyoming.”