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Out of Bounds

Cross at Your Own Risk

U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl injected a welcome dose of sanity into a conflict so far dominated by the lunacy of a handful of wealthy landowners

By Rob Breeding

Here’s my pro tip of the week: never accept legal advice offered in a bar. Also, never base any important legal decision on the ramblings of some foolish newspaper columnist. 

Never.

With that out of the way, my advice is that right now there’s a strong likelihood you could head out to your nearest disputed corner crossing, set a multipurpose ladder over the corner pin, climb from one square of public land to another, and expect not even the most negligible repercussions.

I’m not recommending you test my theory, by the way. I’m just saying it’s likely you’d be fine.

That’s where things stand following a judge’s decision in federal court in Wyoming last week, tossing a civil lawsuit against four hunters who used a ladder to cross over the corner where ranch owner Fred Eshelman’s property intersected public land.

Eshelman wanted $7 million in damages from the hunters who did zero damage to Eshelman’s property. What the hunters did damage was Eshelman’s entitled status as lord and ruler over all he surveyed. Those damn peasants just walked out on that public land, allowed their shadow to darken a portion of Eshelman’s domain, and hunted. 

Can you imagine the damaged egos, the enraged grievance, the unleashed fury of America’s would-be oligarchs if they’re to be forced to put up with this everywhere? That $7 million is just a drop in the bucket compared to a nation’s wealthy elite having to wrestle with the notion their powers aren’t limitless.

This case has a long way to go before it’s resolved, but U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl injected a welcome dose of sanity into a conflict so far dominated by the lunacy of a handful of wealthy landowners who’ll stop at nothing to keep the riffraff in its place.

This is a worldview in which the many should be subservient to the few, but when citizens are free to go out and hunt their own food without asking anyone’s permission they are a heck of a lot harder to wrangle into subservience.

This ruling will likely be appealed, and those appeals could, and probably should, make their way to the Supreme Court. Until then, we’re all squatters in a realm of uncertainty.

Well, not completely. 

Down in Wyoming, when this corner crossing dispute first arose, the local county attorney made the silly decision to charge the four public landowners with trespass. A jury of the hunters’ peers found Carbon County Attorney Ashley Mayfield Davis’ case less than convincing, finding the defendants not guilty after rather brief deliberations.

I hope appeals courts share the wisdom of that six-person Wyoming jury. Locking the public off public land, while essentially making that public land an enclave for a privileged few, would be an irrational and damaging interpretation of the law. Of course, we need to protect property rights, but there are two sets of property rights in conflict at corner-crossings. 

The courts need to protect both.

So should the public agencies charged with managing public lands and public wildlife.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks needlessly jumped into the fray following the Wyoming ruling, which, while possibly limited in its scope, is a clear strike in favor of public access. 

Sadly, FWP saw this as the moment to reaffirm its support for access deniers. 

Dustin Temple, FWP’s deputy director, channeling the vibe that once allowed FWP to stand on the sidelines while the most important Stream Access Case in Montana history, Mitchell Slough, was litigated, announced corner crossings remain “unlawful” and will continue to report them to county attorneys for “prosecutorial discretion.”

Those county attorneys foolish enough to exercise that discretion may end up with a big, fat “L” stamped to their foreheads.

The rest of us simply hope our leaders learn something from that wise jury and a federal judge in Wyoming, and this time do the right thing.

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