The Important Corner Crossing Lawsuit

A trial set for this summer could have massive implications in the conflict over public land access.

The Important Corner Crossing Lawsuit

Photo provided by Realtree Media 

In the fall of 2021, four nonresident hunters from Missouri wanted to access public land in Wyoming that heretofore had been off-limits to the general public due to the fact that two tracts of private land met at a corner, theoretically blocking the public from crossing the private land holdings without permission. To do so without trespassing, they built an A-frame ladder across the fenced intersection where the four parcels met — two private property, two public — so that when they climbed up and down the ladder, they would never set foot on the private land. They were subsequently accused of trespassing on Iron Bar Ranch land near Elk Mountain; a Carbon County jury later found them innocent of the charges. However, Iron Bar Holdings LLC and its owner, North Carolinian Fred Eshelman, filed a civil lawsuit claiming the four had violated the ranch’s air space, thereby diminishing his property value, claiming damages of between $3.1 million and $7.75 million. The 22,042-acre ranch was appraised at $31.31 million in 2017.

The trial is set to begin June 26, 2023, in Casper, Wyoming. And it is one of the most consequential trials concerning the rights of the general public — not just hunters — to access and enjoy lands we all own to occur in my 71 years on this earth. 

onX maps ( researched the corner-crossing issue extensively and found that there are 8.3 million acres of corner-locked public lands, with 27,120 land-locking corners currently in existence in the Western states. Also, there are no laws on the books that make corner-crossing illegal.

These “corners” were created generations ago, when most of the land in the Western U.S. was mapped and platted based on square, 640-acre sections arranged in neat rows and columns, a system known as the Public Land Survey System. In this system, four tracts of land meet at a single corner point with four 90-degree angles. As land was doled out to homesteaders and the newly formed states, a complex patchwork of ownership formed. And while over generations properties were combined or split, some tracts were transformed into every imaginable shape. However, the underlying square, 640-acre section, can still be found all over the West.

Why this issue is so important was highlighted in briefs related to the case in federal District Court by both the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and Backcountry Hunter & Anglers. Both groups realize the outcome could have sweeping implications for Wyoming’s — and the nation’s — land access and trespass policy. 

The case revolves around whether or not landowners own not just the land, but also the airspace above that land. To “corner jump,” people must put at least some part of their bodies in the air above the private property. In their brief, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers contends that the public has been unjustly locked out of millions of acres of federal public land across Wyoming and the West. Their brief states that “A private landowner with half the ownership of a corner does not have a veto over access by the owner of the other half of the corner — namely the federal government — and by extension, the people of the United States.”

Wyoming Stock Growers Association disagrees, believing that “checkerboard” land grants by Congress came with no implied public access, their primary purpose being to reserve such things as mineral and transportation rights for the government. Their brief states that “These reservations make it clear that Congress was well aware of its ability to reserve necessary rights in granted lands. However, Congress did not reserve any rights for public access in the ‘checkerboard lands’ in western states. Consequently, the agencies who administer these lands have long cautioned members of the public against crossing private lands to access federal lands.”

Here’s what it’s really all about. In many cases, landowners large and small have for generations assumed that public lands adjacent to their own private holdings were theirs by default. The cat was let out of the bag when the plaintiffs in this case claimed that by allowing corner-crossing access to the public land adjacent to the Iron Bar Ranch it would diminish the ranch’s value by up to 25 percent. “[This disclosure] says things that have been unsaid for a long time,” Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, told MeatEater’s Jordan Sillars in a September 2022 interview. “What they are saying is that they have the sole right to that public land and that if we the people have access to it, that diminishes the value of their ranch. That has not been said publicly, really ever.” 

Surveys of hunters show that one of the main reasons they give the game up is because they cannot find a place to hunt at reasonable cost. Not allowing hunters (as well as anglers, hikers, backpackers, bird watchers, and other outdoor enthusiasts) access to millions of acres of public land — that that all Americans own together — will not help. At the same time, hunters and other outdoorsmen need to be respectful of private property rights. 

“In these situations, access proponents believe it should be legal for hunters to step from one of these parcels to the other,” MeatEater Founder Steven Rinella said. “If the intersections were properly marked and step ladders installed, you could step from one to the other without ever placing yourself on private property. Invariably, the folks who hate the idea of corner crossing are the people who enjoy private access to those public lands. As is, they can block public access through the dubious concern that someone’s shoulders would theoretically be in their ‘airspace’ for a fraction of a second.” And as Land Tawney told Jordan Sillars, “Let’s figure out how we can work with hunters and anglers to access public land without treading on private land. Nobody wants to willfully trespass on private land or cause impacts to that land. Without private landowners who are good stewards, we wouldn’t have the populations we have today. At the same time, let’s recognize that they don’t own our public land. We have to have access to it.” What’s your take? Drop me a note at and let me know.


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