Driving across rural Colorado, the land stretches on, sometimes seemingly forever, and may seem wild and unhindered. But, invisible to most, is a grid system of private and public land that’s part of a legal gray area affecting millions of acres in the American west.
A recent report by geographic navigation software company onX found that over 8.3 million acres of land open to public use in the western U.S. is surrounded by private land but shares an opposite corner with public land.
For parcels of public land that meet at corners surrounded by private land, many outdoor recreationists use an unusual method to try and access the land. It’s unclear if the practice avoids criminal trespass and last year resulted in a high-profile trial in Wyoming.
Corner crossing is a practice used by hunters, fishers and other members of the public hoping to use public land surrounded by private land. The practice involves stepping from one corner of public land to another corner without ever setting foot on the private land between the two parcels. The practice theoretically prevents the public from trespassing onto private land, but whether or not corner crossing steps around trespassing isn’t exactly clear.
Patrick Welsh, from Welsh Law LLC, practices criminal and civil defense law, including representing clients in criminal cases that arise out of hunting law. Wildlife law defense is a niche practice, he says, and one he developed after working first as deputy district attorney in the 14th Judicial District covering Grand, Moffat and Routt counties in the northwest corner of Colorado. The area is a “sportsman’s paradise,” Welsh said, with wide open spaces, and access to the Yampa River and public lands.
Several times a year, Welsh is hired for a corner cross trespassing case, he said. And while corner crossing is a minority of the criminal trespassing cases he handles, the murky legal precedent around the issue makes it particularly interesting and complicated.
“There are a number of them throughout the year where people get charged and they’re like ‘well what do you mean? I got on my onX [geographic navigation software] and I got on the corner and I stepped over from public land to public land, how did I do something wrong?’” Welsh explained.
While it’s an obscure issue, inaccessible public lands and corner-locked public lands are extremely common across the American west.
A 2019 report published by onX and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership found that 6.35 million acres of state-owned public land in the western U.S. (Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California) have no permanent public access. In Colorado, 435,000 acres of state trust lands are surrounded by private land without any permanent public access.
Corner crossing made headlines in Wyoming last year after four hunters were charged with criminal trespass. The group had set up an A-frame ladder between two corners of public lands and never set foot on privately owned land, but were charged with criminal trespass in the air space of the adjacent private landowners.
After a three-day trial in May, a Wyoming jury acquitted the four hunters of misdemeanor criminal trespass. The trial attracted the attention of hunters and outdoors people across the country, amassing more than $70,000 from a GoFundMe campaign for their legal fees. The private landowner in the case has since filed a federal civil suit against the hunters.
But the underlying question of criminal trespassing and corner crossing in Wyoming was left unanswered: can someone still trespass on land without setting foot on the property itself?
“There lies the crux of property law,” explained Welsh. He compared the questions around corner crossing to a commonly used metaphor in property law, that property rights are like a bundle of sticks. While a member of the public may not have ever set foot on a property owner’s land while corner crossing, they likely made their way into the airspace above, one of the sticks of property law.
“In cases I’ve had with this whole issue of corner crossing and really what they’re arguing up in Wyoming is you’re breaking the close [of the property lines], you’re breaking the air space above and in those corners, there is no property between, there is no air between. Those four corners meet and it’s a tight seal,” said Welsh.
The Colorado Supreme Court in 1979 addressed similar issues over if members of the public can trespass on private property while floating on a public river, but no state appeals court or law has addressed if, or under what conditions, corner crossing is considered trespassing. “The reality of it is today is that most private landowners have addressed this, most of the public is aware of it, and things are posted and everything else,” said Welsh. “But a lot of it now comes down to the issue of corner crossing and trespassing while hunting.”
Welsh said that without clear direction from the Colorado legislature or state courts, corner crossing cases are a legal gray area. “But it goes both ways. It is something that I think the legislation should figure out, not only in Colorado but in these other states, because there isn’t any true direction.”
He explained that since private property owners are often the only people who can access these public lands directly, many have a vested interest in keeping members of the public out to preserve the value that the access adds to their property. “They’re gonna fight for it and they have a right to,” said Welsh.
Members of the public, on the other hand, Welsh explained, have an interest to access land for their own use which can include hunting and fishing, but also other recreational activities like photography, watching wildlife, gathering berries or hiking.
Partially spurred by the high-profile case, the Wyoming legislature introduced legislation earlier this year to clarify how criminal trespass laws apply to corner crossing. The bill died in committee after state lawmakers agreed federal courts should make the decision based on the civil lawsuit filed by the private landowner.
Welsh said that the Wyoming bill is a good sign, however, since it might prompt other western states to take action on the legal gray area. Until then, corner crossing is a murky intersection of the law.
Editors note: This story was updated June 28 to include Patrick Welsh’s firm name.