Bountiful big game in the alpine meadows and timbered ravines of Wyoming’s Elk Mountain drew four Missouri hunters to the area last fall. They encountered several points where the corners of four land parcels met: two public and two private plots, alternating like the squares of a checkerboard. The camo-clad bow hunters tried to move as if they were checkers on the landscape, stepping diagonally between the Bureau of Land Management parcels where they were hunting in order to avoid lots that belonged to the privately owned Elk Mountain Ranch.

Land ownership in southern Wyoming, like much of the West, is a patchwork of interspersed parcels. Wyoming’s checkerboard originated when the federal government took land from the Shoshone, Arapaho, Lakota, Cheyenne and other tribal nations, often by breaking treaties, and gave alternating parcels to railroads to encourage development. The result resembles a neat grid on paper, but a messy landscape in real life.

The men had numerous encounters with an irate ranch manager, as well as with Wyoming Game and Fish officers and Carbon County sheriff’s deputies. According to the hunters, officials told them they’d done nothing wrong. But on Oct. 4, a deputy greeted them in camp with criminal trespass citations that carried up to six months in jail and a penalty of up to $750.

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The hunters never actually set foot on private land; they used a stepladder to hopscotch over the corners. But in doing so, they violated the airspace above the land, which belongs to the landowner. The case, now pending in Carbon County Circuit Court, sheds light on what’s called “corner crossing,” traveling between public land parcels where the corners touch. The verdict could clarify if, and how, the public can access millions of acres of public land. A 2018 report from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the map app company onX found 2.28 million acres of federal and state land in Wyoming are inaccessible due to checkerboarding — effectively turning some public lands into an extension of surrounding landowners’ private backyards.

Like other Western states, Wyoming has no statute explicitly allowing or prohibiting corner crossing. Opponents say it’s a problem because even if the land isn’t physically impacted, invading its airspace erodes private property rights. Phone calls to the ranch, owned by wealthy businessman Fred Eshelman, weren’t returned. A 2004 Wyoming attorney general’s opinion states that while corner crossing doesn’t violate the state’s hunting laws, it “may still be a criminal trespass” — something game wardens lack the authority to enforce and must refer to the local sheriff or county attorney.

“This is a murky legal area, due in part to the failure of Congress to ensure access to landlocked federal public lands.”

It’s messy elsewhere, too: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officers won’t cite people for corner crossing, but attorneys general in Utah and Colorado have informed their state wildlife agencies that it’s illegal. “This is a murky legal area, due in part to the failure of Congress to ensure access to landlocked federal public lands,” said Martin Nie, a professor of natural resource policy at the University of Montana.

While this case involves hunters, anyone wanting to access public land — whether for climbing, hiking, foraging or bird watching — has an interest in the outcome. A hunter’s attorney filed a motion to dismiss the charges in January, arguing that federal law prohibits people from preventing free passage through public lands. A jury trial is currently scheduled for April.

The area around Elk Mountain is surrounded by a checkerboard pattern of public (yellow) and private (white), as well as state (blue) lands. Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

If they’re found guilty, the men could appeal the decision to the Wyoming Supreme Court, but even then, any ruling would apply only to Wyoming. “The hopes of what this would resolve might be overblown,” said Joel Webster, vice president of western conservation for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “And, in fact, it could make it harder to work constructively with landowners.”

Then there’s the chance of political pushback. “My fear is that it inevitably lands at the Legislature, which historically hasn’t been the place to solve this,” said Jess Johnson, the Wyoming Wildlife Federation’s government affairs director. Bills to legalize corner crossing died in Wyoming in 2011, Montana in 2013 and Nevada in 2017. Johnson thinks the conversation will be more productive when tension from the October dispute dies down. “(The way) to change really hot-button policy issues that have lots of emotion around them is not by lighting a bonfire,” she said. “It’s a slow burn.”

This story first appeared at High Country News and is republished here with permission. Photo: Lisa McIntyre/Unsplash

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