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Is Corner Crossing Landlocked Public Property Trespassing?

Sportsmen are locked out of thousands of acres of public land because of a quirk of geometry.

Is Corner Crossing Landlocked Public Property Trespassing?

My friend—let’s call him “Justin Schaaf”—isn’t a radical, but every hunting season he contemplates committing civil disobedience. He longs to get ticketed for trespassing in order to test what he considers one of the central injustices of the West.

Legion of sportsmen cannot access hundreds of thousands of acres of public land due to both history and geometry. By platting private and public land in a checkerboard pattern, states hoped to attract industry and settlement. The private land could be homesteaded, founders reasoned, but the other would be used for public purposes, such as railroad rights-of-way or funding schools through leases or logging. These public sections reverted back to the Bureau of Land Management or state school administrators but ever since statehood have been only accessed through adjacent private land.

Because of the checkerboard pattern, the long sides of public sections are bordered by inaccessible private land, but the corners of these public tracts often touch accessible public land. “Schaaf” thinks if he simply climbs the corner posts, and never sets his hunting boots on the adjacent private land, he can access the landlocked sections.

Great in theory, but in reality “corner crossing” is outlawed either implicitly or explicitly in nearly every state in the West.

A number of states have tried to define corner-crossing as trespassing. Montana House Bill 566 would have made corner-crossing punishable by a fine of between $50 and $500 and no more than six months in jail. An estimated 750,000 acres of Montana public land are inaccessible behind cornerposts. Landowners and property-rights advocates argue that fences often don’t follow ownership lines. They say the legislation, which was drafted but never introduced because of opposition, was simply a way to protect sportsmen from inadvertently trespassing. In many areas, where there’s no fence separating the private from the public lands, they’re right. Sportsmen advocates argue that GPS mapping programs let users know exactly where they are and that public land should be considered accessible unless there’s a compelling reason to keep the public off.

Meanwhile, “Schaaf” contemplates getting himself ticketed in order to legally establish whether corner-crossing is trespassing or not.

“I can’t imagine a court in the country would prosecute a hunter for stepping into this gray area,” he said. “I think the law is on our side, and sportsmen have nothing to lose and literally hundreds of thousands of acres to gain by resolving this issue once and for all.”

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