Corner Crossing: Four Missouri men charged with criminal trespassing for stepping over private property to reach public land
According to a clerk at the circuit court in Rawlins Wyoming, on Oct. 4, 2021 Carbon County authorities charged four men for criminal trespassing. According to the county clerk all four men in the case have entered pleas of not guilty. The charges carry a penalty of up to $750 and six months in jail if convicted. The four men claim that they only stepped over private property in order to reach public land and never actually touch private property. In 2019, onx maps and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership teamed up and used GPS technology to identify how much of our public lands have no legal access, revealing there are millions upon millions of acres that have no permanent legal access in our western states. There is approximately 4 million acres in Wyoming alone. In New Mexico, we have approximately 2 million acres that the public cannot legally access.
These four men appear determined to fight the charges and still claim that they did not trespass. They claim that they took every precaution to make certain private land was not touched. They claim to have used a ladder to cross over the corner connecting the two pieces of public lands. A nonprofit organization, the Wyoming Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers have since launched a GoFundMe page to raise money to pay for legal fees pertaining to this case. According to the site, over $68,800 has been raised so far and continues to rise daily. Attorneys for the men would not comment on the case except to say that they intend to fight this in court.
The men face charges of violating Wyoming statute 6-3-03, according to the circuit court in Rawlins. Under that law, a person is guilty of criminal trespass “if he enters or remains on or in the land or premises of another person, knowing he is not authorized to do so, or after being notified to depart or to not trespass…” According to Carbon County property records, the private property in this case is The Elk Mountain Ranch that covers more than 20,000 acres and “landlocks” numerous 640-acre sections of public U.S. Bureau of Land Management property. The men used a ladder to climb over the fence-post obstacle, according to accounts. In a motion filed Feb. 10, the county prosecutor asked the court to add another charge against the four men: trespassing to hunt. Carbon County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nugent requested this change of citation with the accusation that the hunters “entered or remained on or in the land or premises of another person, Fred Eshelman, to hunt without the permission of the owner…and did so after being notified not to trespass by observing signs posted.”
There is no clear cut law that specifically mentions corner crossing. In August of 2004, The Wyoming Game And Fish Department issued a memorandum to Wyoming County Sherriffs, Wyoming County Attornys, and Wyoming Department of Agriculture. The memorandum's subjuct was the Attorney General's opinion on "Corner-Crossing". The Wyoming AG's opinion was that "coner-crossing does not violate Wyoming Statute 23-3-305 (b). In order to be convicted of Title 23 statute, a person must hunt or intend to hunt on private property without permission. Simply crossing the corner of private property to reach public lands does not fulfill this requirement. "corner-Cossing" mat still be a criminal trespass under Wyoming Statute 6-3-303. Wyoming Game and Fish enforcement officers do not have the legislative authority to enforce this statute. Unfortunately, that leaves Game and Fish in the posistion of referring reports of "corner-crossing" to the local sheriff's or county attorney's office. This case brings up the question: Does a private landowner own the air above their property? Please read an article written by Jay Mark Hendrix that explains this very question in detail.
On Feb. 15, the entity controlling the private lands in question filed a civil suit against the four men. Iron Bar Holdings, LLC, a business registered in North Carolina and owned by pharmaceuticals businessman Fred Eshelman, seeks an alternate path toward punishing the hunters for accessing landlocked public lands in pursuit of elk and mule deer. According to the civil suit filed, “Plaintiff [Iron Bar Holdings] has a right to exclusive control, use, and enjoyment of its Property, which includes the airspace at the corner, above the Property,” attorney Gregory Weisz wrote in the suit. “For the purposes of this Complaint and under controlling law, the Property includes the airspace above the surface of the land, the surface of the land, and the subsurface below. Plaintiff owns and controls the airspace above its real property and is entitled to exclude others from the use of that airspace by a ‘corner crossing.’ Defendants knowingly, intentionally, and purposefully interfered with Plaintiff’s right to use, control, and enjoy its Property by ‘corner crossing’ through the Property and trespassing across the Property, even if Defendants did not step onto the surface of the Property.” The civil suit seeks to recover unspecified monetary restitution for the alleged civil trespass in an amount to be proven at trial, plus costs and fees. They must prove that damage was done to their client. This is important because a judge’s ruling could set precedent around the legality of corner crossing in Wyoming. However, by the same logic, a ruling in favor of the hunters could potentially open the door to accessing hundreds of hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands in the state. There has not been a date scheduled in the civil case which by law must take place within 180 days of charging. The criminal trial is scheduled for April 14.