Another good story by Angus Thuermer of Wyofile.
Here’s the issue.
The conflict grows out of the Western checkerboard land-ownership pattern set during the territorial settlement and railroad building days of the 1800s. At issue in Wyoming is whether hunters and others are trespassing if they step from one parcel of public land to another over a four-corner intersection with two private parcels — without touching private land.
In Wyoming 404,000 public acres are “landlocked” by the checkerboard pattern under any convention that views corner crossing as illegal. Many say the issue remains unsettled with no Wyoming statute explicitly addressing corner crossing.
But if the issue turns on federal law or is settled in a federal court, a decision could impact almost 1.6 million acres when also counting Utah, Idaho, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico, according to an assessment by the Center for Western Priorities.
The citations spurred the nonprofit Wyoming Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and others to launch a GoFundMe campaign to pay legal fees, assembling 1,400 supporters who have donated $63,265 to the legal fight.
“These four hunters took every precaution to make certain private land was not touched,” the GoFundMe page, launched on Nov. 19, states. “We believe this act does not violate law or cause any negative impacts to private landowners and their use of their property.”
Here’s the map in the story for those of you not familiar with checkerboards:
“We see the corner crossing as a violation of private property rights,” Magagna said. Property owners have “a certain amount of space above the land,” that makes it physically impossible to corner-cross without violating that space, he said.
Even though there may be no physical damage, “it’s still a violation,” he said.
But Squillace said the defendants may find protection in the federal Unlawful Inclosure of Public Lands Act of 1885. That law, in short, prohibits fencing on private property from obstructing “any person” from peaceably entering public land. Penalties for a violation can reach $1,000 and a maximum of one year imprisonment.
Private property or public access
Attorneys can argue different interpretations of the UIA, but Squillace said “it absolutely applies,” to the corner crossing case. Blocking public access is a “clear violation of the Unlawful Inclosure Act.”
“The whole point,” he said, “is that you can’t prevent the public’s access to public lands.”
Further, if the photograph in question is an accurate depiction of the corner, “I think what the ranchers have done here should be stopped,” he said. “They should not be allowed to fence off public land.”
Magagna said the UIA does not apply to corner crossing. “I don’t see that’s a relevant issue,” he said, “because fencing your private land is not under that unlawful enclosure of public land.”
Both sides can point to precedents in Wyoming. Magagna references Leo Sheep Co. v. the United States, in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the BLM did not have a right to a corner-crossing road.
Although the Leo case was about a road, “our position is the principle is the same,” Magagna said. “The physical damage would be different, but the principle would be the same.”
Squillace references the Taylor Lawrence case of the late 1980s, in which the Wyoming rancher built a 28-mile-long fence across checkerboard corners that kept pronghorn antelope from migrating to winter habitat near the Red Desert. Courts decided the UIA applied to the fence and that it was illegal.”