A recent trespassing case in Wyoming involving four area men may have created more questions than answers when it comes to accessing public land for recreation. But one thing is clear—we need federal action that guarantees we can all easily access public land.
If you are unfamiliar with the Wyoming case, four local men (three from Steelville and one from Rolla, who is a Steelville native) were charged with trespassing last year for crossing a corner where two sections of public land (one owned by the state and one by the federal government met). They used ladder to cross the corner, which had been blocked by the private landowner, in order to access the federal land where they were hunting elk and deer. At no point did they ever step on private property but they were charged with trespassing for violating the property owner’s airspace.
A jury took only two hours to find the men not guilty, but they face similar charges from a 2020 hunting trip and also face a federal civil lawsuit filed by the landowner. Given the fact they never actually stepped foot on private property, it seems those cases should be dismissed.
What is more important, however, is that action should be taken to make sure we can all access public lands whether we are a hunter, fisherman, backpacker, biker, mushroom hunter, or whatever. Public lands belong to all of us and we should have an unlimited right to use them.
So, how to we make that happen?
One way would be to consolidate federal and private property in areas where they are mingled and people often have no way to get to public land that is surrounded by private property, especially in our western states. The U.S. Forest Service already does that and it is not uncommon right here in Missouri.
While we have vast tracts of Forest Service land in Missouri, there are numerous places where that public land is surrounded by private property. To reduce that problem, the federal government has a program where tracts of private property that already touches Forest Service land can be swapped for tracts that are isolated, thereby eliminating federal property that is landlocked by private property.
Another way would be negotiated easements with private property owners that would give people access to public land. In a column released on May 9, Outdoor Life’s Hunting and Conservation Editor Andrew McKean suggested just that, among other things.
“The most exciting opportunity the corner-crossing case enables is accelerating various flavors of access agreements around the west. Most states already have some type of arrangement that pays landowners who provide recreational access to their private ground. Some are enabled through federal Farm Bill programs like Open Fields, which bundles Conservation Reserve Program payments with an access provision. Others are administered by states, such as Wyoming’s Access Yes program, Montana’s Block Management Program, and South Dakota’s Walk-In Areas.”
He also encouraged land swaps in the west much like the Forest Service already does.
“One of the main problems with corner-locked land is the particular arrangement of checkerboarded private and public lands. What if mile-square chunks of public ground could be traded with adjacent private ground, creating large contiguous units that not only benefit public recreationists but also the landowners themselves?
“Land swaps are notoriously hard to execute because every property has its unique assets and shortcomings, and because land trades are based on equivalent assessed valuations. Still, the prospect of peril shouldn’t frustrate the art of the possible, and federal agencies can easily neutralize the problem of providing difficult corner access by making those corners common ownership.
“Contiguous blocks of public ownership accrue value with each additional section, just as contiguous blocks of private ownership gain in value without the intrusion of public recreators. Strategic land swaps would amplify their benefits to all parties.”
All parties includes you. You are a public landowner. Even if you never step foot on public land in the west, you should support access to all of America’s other public landowners.