Did you know that you can’t ‘corner hop’ to State and federal lands in the state of Montana? This is a big issue especially for outdoors recreation. Read more on the detailed report that onX has prepped – there is a ton more conversation on their website including solutions and landowner thoughts.
The Corner-Locked Report – Controversial Corners Restrict Access to 8.3 Million Acres in 11 Western States: by onX
We wanted to get the hard facts on corner-crossing, so we dove into the data. Read the report to learn how much land is involved, the concerns of affected property owners, and what can be done to address this complicated issue.
Over the past two centuries, legislation, random chance, and a variety of land deals have left the American West with a patchwork landscape of public and private land. Within the patchwork lie swaths of alternating sections of public and private land, like the squares of a checkerboard. At every point where four squares meet, there is a property corner ripe for controversy. With the issue of corner-crossing in the news again, we decided to leverage our strengths and drill down on the data. What we discovered was shocking in its scope.
The Highlights Using our onX mapping technology, we identified 8.3 million acres of corner-locked lands—more than half of the West’s total landlocked area. 27,120 land-locking corners exist in the West. No law exists that specifically outlaws corner-crossing, but various attempts to make it either definitively legal or illegal have thus far failed. Property owners have valid concerns, and any solution to the problem must address landowner needs. Tools and programs for unlocking public land exist, but a widespread answer will take input and attention from a diverse group of stakeholders with varied interests.
Access matters to onX — we believe that everyone should have access to nature. When people feel connected to the land, they are more likely to protect it.
The information provided here does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice, and may not constitute the most up-to-date information. Links to third-party websites are intended for the convenience of the reader and do not endorse third-party information.
The Crux of the Issue: In October of 2021, four hunters were cited for criminal trespass in Wyoming. They had not entered a private building, nor had they touched private land. What they had done was place an A-frame ladder across an intersection of property boundaries, the location where four parcels of land meet at a point. They climbed up one side of the ladder from public land, and down the other side of the ladder, stepping kitty-corner onto a different parcel of public land. But in doing so, their bodies also crossed through the airspace of the other two parcels meeting at that point, which were private.
Their trial, set for mid-April, will decide if they trespassed when they passed through that private airspace. Corner-locked Bureau of Land Management parcels in patchwork with private land.Corner-locked Bureau of Land Management parcels in checkerboard ownership pattern.
Why Corner-Locked Lands Exist: The location on which these hunters set their ladder is not unique in the West. Most of the land in the Western U.S. is mapped and platted based on square, 640-acre sections arranged in neat rows and columns, a system known as the Public Land Survey System. As a rule, squares have four 90-degree angles. This means a hallmark of this system is four tracts of land meeting at a single corner point. As land was doled out to homesteaders and the newly formed states, designated for parks and forests and reservations, and retained or reclaimed by the federal government, a complex patchwork of ownership formed. Properties combined, split, and transformed into every imaginable shape, but the underlying unit—the humble, square, 640-acre section—can still be found all over the West.
In many parts of the West, land ownership boundaries are invisible on the landscape.
Quantifying the Immense Scale of Landlocked Public Land: Within this patchwork lie parcels of public land that are landlocked, that is, surrounded by private land with no public roads or trails to access them. Since at least the 1970’s, the hunting community has been well aware of inaccessible parcels, and many hunters have found particular locations with maps and binoculars that they can’t access. But nobody, including the federal land management agencies themselves, knew exactly how much public land was out of reach to the public. So in 2018 and 2019, onX and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership worked together to discover 15.8 million acres of landlocked federal and state land throughout the West.
When we conducted that analysis, we noticed landlocked parcels fall into one of two categories, which we now call “isolated” and “corner-locked.”
Isolated parcels are fairly self-explanatory: they are parcels of public land off by themselves, like islands in a sea of private land. Corner-locked parcels, on the other hand, are those that are mostly surrounded by private land, but do touch another parcel of public land at one or more corners.
Public land that is inaccessible to the general public because there is no public road or trail to get there AND because the legality of corner-crossing remains unclear
Most hunters in the Western U.S. refrain from stepping over a property corner from one parcel of public land to another. Doing so is referred to as corner-hopping, corner-crossing, or corner-trespassing, depending on who you ask. Outside of the world of hunting, and outside of the West, this limitation is rarely discussed. In fact, there’s no law on the books which specifically states that stepping over a property corner from public land to public land is illegal. Despite various attempts to make corner-crossing legal or illegal by state legislatures, no state has yet passed such a bill into law. This has left the decision to prosecute “corner-hoppers” in the hands of local law enforcement and local courts.
At onX, we believe that publicly accessible land plays a critical role in equalizing everyone’s access to outdoor recreation, but we also recognize private property rights. Like we did with the landlocked analysis, we wanted to quantify the issue of corner-crossing. How much land is involved? How many property owners does it affect? To get the answers, we dove back into the data.
This report on corner-locked public land reveals a complex dichotomy and history between outdoor enthusiasts and private landowners. While some favor public access and others are looking to protect private property rights, several court cases and failed legislation have effectively positioned corner-crossing in a “legal gray area.” But there are programs and tools that simultaneously benefit landowners and the public, so we conclude the report with ways that public lands are being successfully unlocked—even without a definitive policy on corner-crossing.
READ MORE ON THIS ARTICLE AND ISSUE ON THE onX Website –