RAFLINS – Four hunters disputing charges of criminal trespassing in Carbon County have pushed the debate over the crossing – stepping over private property to reach public land – into the justice system, with implications that could impact 1.6 million landlocked acres in five western states.
Carbon County authorities cited the four men for criminal trespassing on October 4, according to a Rawlins Circuit Court clerk. All have pleaded not guilty, according to the clerk and others close to the case. Criminal trespassing carries a penalty of up to $ 750 and six months in jail if convicted.
The conflict stems from the Western pattern of checkerboard land ownership established during the days of land settlement and railroad construction in the 1800s. The issue in Wyoming is whether hunters and others people enter without permission if they move from one public plot of land to another through a four-corner intersection with two private plots – without touching private land.
In Wyoming, 404,000 public acres are “landlocked” by the checkerboard pattern under any convention that considers corner crossing illegal. Many say the matter remains open without any Wyoming law explicitly addressing the crossing.
But if the matter revolves around federal law or is resolved in a federal court, a ruling could impact nearly 1.6 million acres, also including Utah, Idaho, Montana, Colorado. and New Mexico, according to an assessment by the Center for Western Priorities.
The quotes prompted the nonprofit Wyoming Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and others to launch a GoFundMe campaign to pay legal fees, bringing together 1,400 supporters who donated $ 63,265 to the legal fight.
“These four hunters have taken all necessary precautions to ensure that certain private lands are not affected,” said the GoFundMe page, which launched on November 19. “We believe this act does not violate the law and does not negatively impact private landowners and their use of their property.”
Lawyers for the men declined to comment on the merits of the case, but observers say the four appear to want to take the matter to court.
âIt’s certainly my understanding, my perception, the way it plays out – a Wyoming GoFundMe – that their intention is a larger confrontation on the principle of the turn-crossing,â said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association. Any claim that corner crossing is legal, “this is something that we will resist very strongly,” he said.
Since the men have pleaded not guilty, hired lawyers, received fundraising assistance and public support, “they’re not going to try to come to a plea deal,” said Mark Squillace, professor at the University of Colorado Law School.
The men are charged with violating Wyoming Law 6-3-03, according to the Rawlins Circuit Court. Under this law, a person is guilty of criminal trespass “if he enters or remains on or in the land or the premises of another person, knowing that he is not authorized to do so, or after having been notified to leave or not to encroach … “
The men assured Jeff Muratore, one of the organizers of GoFundMe, that they had never set foot on private property, he said. In a photograph posted to the fundraising webpage claiming to show a corner in question, a chain and wire connects two fence posts on the private sections of the cat’s corner above a survey marker that presumably indicates the common point of the four corners. âNo Entryâ signs for the Elk Mountain Ranch hang from fence posts on private land.
The Elk Mountain Ranch covers more than 20,000 acres, according to Carbon County property records, and “enclaves” many 640-acre sections of public property of the United States Bureau of Land Management. The men used a ladder to climb over the fence post obstacle, it was reported.
A person answering the phone at Elk Mountain Ranch declined to comment.
âWe view the crossing as a violation of private property rights,â Magagna said. Landowners have “a certain amount of space above the land” which makes it physically impossible to cross without violating that space, he said.
Even though there was no physical damage, “it’s still a violation,” he said.
But Squillace said defendants could find protection in the federal law of 1885 on the illegal seizure of public lands. This law, in short, prohibits fences on private property from preventing “any person” from peaceful entry onto public land. Penalties for a violation can reach $ 1,000 and a maximum of one year in prison.
Private property or public access
Lawyers can argue different interpretations of the UIA, but Squillace said “this absolutely applies” to the crossing case. Blocking public access is a “clear violation of the Unlawful Inclosure Act.”
âThe bottom line,â he said, âis that you can’t prevent the public from accessing public lands.
Additionally, if the photograph in question is an accurate depiction of the area, “I think what the ranchers have been doing here should be stopped,” he said. âThey shouldn’t be allowed to fence public lands. “
Magagna said the UIA does not apply to corner crossings. âI don’t see that to be a relevant question,â he said, âbecause the fence on your private land is not under this illegal fence on public land. “
Both parties can cite precedents in Wyoming. Magagna refers to Leo Sheep Co. v. The United States, in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that the BLM was not entitled to a crossing road.
Although the Leo case was about a road, “our position is that the principle is the same,” Magagna said. âThe physical damage would be different, but the principle would be the same. “
Squillace refers to the Taylor Lawrence case of the late 1980s, in which the Wyoming breeder built a 28-mile-long fence through the checkered corners that prevented the American antelope from migrating to the winter habitat near the red desert. The courts ruled that the UIA enforced the fence and that it was illegal.
In ordering the removal of Lawrence’s fence, the courts relied on a 1912 precedent involving a rancher named Stoddard who built a fence that kept other people’s cattle from reaching public lands. In Stoddard, the court argued that the UIA was “intended to prevent the obstruction of free passage or transit for all lawful purposes on public lands,” according to an analysis of the legal issue.
“I would say this is really a federal issue.” Squillace said. âA federal court has jurisdiction.
If Squillace represented the men, he said, he would take the case to federal court. “I would not let the state rule.”
Squillace rejected the concept of an inviolable and invisible vertical plane over a property line through which no one could interfere. This so-called ad coelum doctrine holds that when you own property, you own to the depths and to the heavens.
âThere are limits to this doctrine,â he said. The corner crossing “is such a minor kind of intrusion [and] it is necessary to access public lands – I cannot imagine that a court would use this doctrine.
For its part, the BLM sidesteps the question. âThere is no agency policy regarding railway crossings,â spokesman Brad Purdy wrote in an email, âso it would be up to the state of Wyoming to determine whether the crossing of one piece of public land to another via a corner is trespassing or not. “
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department relies on a 2004 Wyoming attorney general opinion and the Fish Trespass Act, “the agency says on its website,” but may be a violation criminal trespass â.
The agency “handles intrusion issues on a case-by-case / county-by-county basis,” wrote Rick King, chief wildlife officer, in a statement.
Wyoming did not see fit to resolve the corner crossing issue. Lawmakers in 2011 struck down a bill that would have explicitly legalized cornering crossings. He fell 9-0 in the Agriculture, State, Public Lands and Water Resources Committee.
The rejected bill would have “submitted[ed] ownership of airspace over land and water at these [corner] level crossings âand made these crossings legal, according to the introductory paragraph of the bill. A heated debate presaged the disappearance of the bill.
“They were piled up like sardines in the committee room,” said Stan Blake, state representative and committee member at the time. “All hunters and environmentalists were in favor,” said the Green River resident. Their argument, among others, “You really don’t touch anything” on a turn, said Blake.
The breeders have argued their winning ad coelom case, he said. “You draw this [property] line and it goes straight up to infinity, âsaid Blake, paraphrasing the argument. “You can’t cross that line.”
Representative Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) recalls the unified opposition. “At the time, it was called ‘the farm unit’, where all the farm groups acted in coordination to support or oppose certain bills – making it very difficult to pass measures when seemed like every group was against it in the agriculture committee, “he wrote in an email.
“If the speaker [of the House] had wanted the bill to come to the floor, he would have sent it to [the Travel Recreation Wildlife Committee]”Zwonitzer said.
âThere was a lot of emotion on both sides, but it was tough,â he said. âHard enough that I don’t think it’s been considered since. “
Magagna said the legislature could be pushed to act – in favor of landowners. “Should we get a [court] decision, that’s definitely an option we would look at, âhe said of legislation favoring landowners.
Hunters have options, Magagna said. “There are tools to get access,” he said, including asking landowners or through the Game and Fish Department‘s Access Yes program, which seeks public access to property hunting. private. âWe encourage our members to participate in these programs.
âThere are ways to work together to increase access to private land and through private land to public land when needed,â he said. The GoFundMe campaign will put excess donations not used for legal defense into the Access Yes program, according to the website.
Lawyers for the Missouri defendants Brad Cape, Phillip Yoemans, John Slowensky and Zach Smith are expected to meet with prosecutors early next year for what the court said was a settlement conference, although there has no indication that a settlement is pending. No trial date has been set, according to a court official.
Meanwhile, access to Wyoming’s 404,000 acres 20 miles north and south of the Union Pacific Line – and 1,583,000 million acres in landlocked federal public checkerboard across the West – remains largely controlled by private landowners and local and state police and judicial institutions.