Bob Schultz raised buffalo not far from where I grew up. He was a colorful character and he posted signs all along his long, winding driveway leading to his ranch headquarters. The one I remember – and can repeat in print – read “If you trespass on this ranch you better be able to cross this pasture in 9 seconds, because a buffalo bull can do it in 10. It was a memorable lesson in private property rights.
Although the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Brandi Bradley (R-Douglas), had already indicated her intent to hold over its progress, comments were still heard in the House Agriculture committee about HB-1066, Public Access Landlocked Publicly Owned Lands. The bill would allow corner crossing from public land to public land that is corner-locked by privately owned land.
What sounds like a simple concept has proven to be contentious at best.
Some crossings are marked by a small pile of painted rocks and a short marker, easy for hunters or other public land users to cross without causing damage or without great difficulty. Other crossings are at the corner of cow pastures with five-strand barbed wire fences meeting and making a simple step from public land to the like far more difficult.
In Colorado, to unlock access to public lands, 489 access points would have to be made available, opening access to 101,000 acres of public lands. Not all of the private lands that corner-lock public lands are owned by farmers or ranchers; about 20% of those acres are owned by an oil, gas, energy, timber, or mining company. Of those private acres, there are also access points that have been opened to allow access without trespassing. Though some public land users paint the picture, it’s not always the case of an evil, greedy rancher who is akin to the grouchy old man yelling, “get off my lawn!” Even so, there’s little doubt that bad actors on both sides of the No Trespassing sign exist.
I have a close friend on the Western Slope who runs cattle on public lands. Her cattle are not particularly alarmed by mountain bikers and that’s certainly a trait I can’t claim about our cowherd. She can tell many tales of public land users who are respectful of all users. She can also tell stories of calves chased by atv riders, cows found with arrows in their briskets, calves hit and injured or killed by off road vehicles, and cows that have been shot by arrows in the middle of the ranch brand on their shoulder.
One of the most well publicized corner crossing cases is in Wyoming, at 2.44 million acres, more than any other state, resulting from a large railroad grant that traverses the state from east to west.
In 2021, four hunters from Missouri were charged with trespassing when the attempted a corner cross and trespassed in the air space above the Iron Bar Ranch near Elk Mountain. It’s a rather bizarre case that also involves a ranch employee cursing and stalking the group of hunters so from this vantage, it’s far from cut and dried. And, if last week’s HB-1066 discussion is any indication, it’s not a fix that will be neatly agreed upon and carried out.
One outdoorsman in favor of HB-1066 urged lawmakers to “keep public lands in public hands.”
Another said public lands in Colorado are overcrowded and opening the corner-locked acres would ease this issue. He also said Colorado has approximately 24.5 million acres of public land, while the farming and ranching community has 32.5 million acres under their control, all while being about 1% of the state’s population.
“The 99% of us who don’t control large amounts of private land get to use 24.5 million acres, while the other 1% get to use 32.5 million acres, including being the gatekeepers to the land that is corner-locked,” he said.
The term “gatekeepers” conjures images of a troll and bridge, but I believe in private property rights and believe they ought not be eroded. Landowners pour time and treasure into their land, and it is a vital part of their business. Crossing a corner may sound innocent but liability concerns loom large, and bad actors who destroy fences do occasionally happen.
If there ever were a time that public land users and private landowners – specifically ag producers- need to get their proverbial ducks in a row, it’s now. There is a segment of anti-agriculture activists who don’t want livestock grazing on public lands. There is a segment of anti-agriculture activists who want the West returned to the bison grazing that once occurred. There is a segment of anti-agriculture activists who want to put an end to the livestock industry. Hunters and anglers ought to be partners with farmers and ranchers.
The groups benefit one another and hunters and anglers not only pour financially into small, rural communities, they, as a group, tend to vote similarly to ag producers. And at 1%, goodness knows we need the help.
Rachel Gabel is a longtime agriculture writer and the assistant editor of The Fence Post Magazine.