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Out of Bounds

Cutting Corners on Public Access

Wealthy landowners have continued to lock the public out of land the public has a right to access

By Rob Breeding

Four Missouri hunters, who crossed corners between two sections of public land where they touch two sections of private, were found not guilty of trespass last week by a Wyoming jury.

In my book the hunters were never guilty of anything other than making beneficial use of the public land they own, so the verdict was a good outcome. Still, this won’t end the access war that has raged across the West for the better part of four decades. 

I moved to Montana’s Bitterroot Valley in 1992, from my hometown in suburban Southern California. I wasn’t completely new to the rural West, though most of my forays outside the “developed” world had been to the untamed eastern Sierra to fly fish the Owens River or take my first shots as a bird hunter.

What struck me in those first few years working as a journalist in Hamilton was the paradigm shift underway, as wealthy folks from elsewhere discovered property in Montana was a good place to invest excess cash. What that meant was some of the old resource management conflicts — logging, cattle grazing, water diversions — were supplanted by the new existential conflict in the West: access.

My “aha moment” was the no trespassing fight on the Bitterroot River’s Mitchell Slough. Having learned of the Montana Stream Access Law from afar, I considered it something of a Holy Grail of jurisprudence, codifying a new western ethic built on restoring, protecting and recreating on public property in the Northern Rockies.

I was such a naive peasant.

It’s clear now more than ever that whoever controls access in the West controls a resource of incalculable value. We will forever need the timber, beef and crop-sustaining water harvested from public lands, but how we judge the value of what we extract has changed in the decades since I left suburbia. 

Today, experiencing place is sometimes more valuable than board feet.

It’s in this new West that someone striding from one square of Pantone 141C to another, while briefly being in the air space above the two diagonally opposed white squares, is a heinous crime that must be stopped at any cost.

Pantone 141C is the faint, peach color used on maps to designate Bureau of Land Management land that’s most often involved in checkerboard disputes. Pantone 351C (Forest Service green) isn’t far behind. 

White, of course, is private property.

The Wyoming case highlights the absurdity and mean spiritedness that defines the access war. The out-of-state landowner, Fred Eshelman, has two fence posts with chain strung between them above the corner pin where his Elk Mountain Ranch property meets BLM land. This isn’t an intersection of fences, just two fence posts and a foot of chain. Its only purpose is to keep the public off the public’s land.

Law enforcement refused to cite the hunters, who used an A-frame ladder to clear the obstacle without touching private property. Then someone got to Ashley Mayfield Davis, the local county attorney, and she had the hunters cited. Mayfield Davis shall forever be known as the Lego Lady because she used Lego blocks as a visual aid in her failed bid (and waste of taxpayer resources) to convince a jury of rational human beings that the hunters had done something wrong.

Sadly, this isn’t a precedent-setting decision. And even if it were, there are plenty of cases where, despite court defeats, wealthy landowners have continued to lock the public out of land the public has a right to access. 

We can at least hope the jury verdict will inspire state and federal legislators to approve laws that protect the public’s ability to corner cross. After all, those hunters did nothing to harm Eshelman’s private property rights. 

The only thing harmed when we corner cross is Eshelman’s exclusive use of our property.

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