Understanding Public Land Access in a Changing Landscape

LAY OF THE LAND

You might remember my column about ‘Checkerboarding,’ the Western phenomenon that describes the intermingling of private and public land that can negatively impact private landowners when people try to access public land, surrounded by private land, without clear (or any) public access points.


Public Access Disputes and Court Decisions

Disputes over what constitutes a proper access point through private land to public land have been the subject of recent lawsuits in South Dakota and in Wyoming. In the latter case, Cowboy State Daily reported that in 2021 hunters used a “ladder-like device to cross a fence from one piece of public land to another at a checker-boarded corner with ranch property.” The landowner subsequently filed a civil lawsuit claiming the hunters had “violated the ranch’s air space.”

In May, however, a Wyoming federal judge ruled that the hunters did not trespass when they stepped over fencing at the corner of public and private property. Judge Scott Skavdahl’s wrote: “Corner crossing on foot in the checkerboard pattern of land ownership without physically contacting private land and without causing damage to private property does not constitute an unlawful trespass.” Even though state laws differ on access, the Wyoming ruling could have a wider impact in the West. One of those ways might be through renewed efforts to pass state legislation.

Legislation on the Horizon?

Colorado state Rep. Brandi Bradley, for example, told the Colorado Sun her phone was “blowing up” in the wake of the ruling with calls from people interested in reviving legislation that Bradley proposed in the past session. That legislation would allow public land users to walk between corners of public land without the threat of trespassing charges and prohibit landowners from fencing corners of their land that meet public property. Bradley’s bill ultimately wound up as a means to launch a task force to study the issue, but the Sun reports that she now is thinking about trying to pass the bill in the coming session.

Protecting Landowners’ Rights

As I’ve said before, enabling access to public land is important. Given the large generational transfer occurring on ranches throughout the West, however, new landowners are often more interested in privacy and less interested in creating income by letting others hunt their lands or to access public lands through their properties. So it’s incumbent on decision-makers to ensure that access doesn’t trample on the rights of private landowners and potentially result in a loss of land value. After all, private property rights are a constitutional right and an intrinsic element of landownership and value in the U.S. 

Developing a regionwide solution is no simple matter since state laws differ on access. And not every dispute is as straightforward as the Wyoming case – which, by the way, lawyers for the hunters expect to be appealed, so that situation remains fluid. 

At Mirr Ranch Group, we can identify public access issues with a property, as well as a variety of other issues, upfront as you consider a ranch investment or as you prepare your ranch for sale.


WHAT ELSE?

RIGHT TO REPAIR: Colorado is the first state to pass “right to repair” law for farmers. The Associated Press reports that the bill “ensures farmers can fix their own tractors and combines with a right to repair law (that) compels manufacturers to provide the necessary manuals, tools, parts and software.” Learn more.

WYOMING WILDLIFE RESPONSE: Record snowpack and cold had a devastating impact on wildlife in Wyoming this past winter. Some state herds experienced up to 70 percent mortality in adult deer and near-100 percent mortality in fawns. (Read our report) The state legislature, in response, dedicated more money for its wildlife natural resource trust fund. “It’s important that we continue to fund Wyoming Game and Fish Department to help maintain and improve habitat for declining populations after a winter like this,” Speaker of the House Albert Sommers told Wyoming Public Radio.

TRICKLE-DOWN EFFECT: The recent deal announced by California, Arizona and Nevada marked a significant step forward in the conservation of Colorado River water. But what does it mean to other states using that same water? Read this story about the potential impact in Colorado.

DON’T FENCE THEM IN: The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the increasing use of ‘virtual fencing.’ Of course, you could have read about the same topic months earlier on the MRG website.

Lay of the Land is a monthly column by Ken Mirr, the Founder and Managing Broker of Mirr Ranch Group, that highlights news of the West impacting the ranch lifestyle. Have a question about the West? Email him at Ken@MirrRanchGroup.com.


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