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public land

Public Right To Public Land At Stake In Fed Corner Crossing Lawsuit, Wyoming Hunters Say

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily.

Federal court is the only place to decide whether a private landowner can control access to public land, according to the latest legal filing in the battle over hunters accused of violating a ranch’s private airspace.

As a result, the lawsuit filed against the hunters — an ongoing action separate from the criminal trespass charges some continue to face in state court — should remain in U.S. District Court and not be returned to state courts for resolution, said the documents filed on the hunters’ behalf.

The hunters face legal action on two fronts — criminal trespass charges filed against them in circuit court in Rawlins and the lawsuit filed against them by the ranch seeking damages for their alleged trespassing.

A six-member jury on Friday found the hunters innocent of trespass charges filed in connection with a 2021 incident, when they were accused of using a ladder-like device to cross from one piece of public land to another. New trespass charges were filed against three of the hunters on April 25, accusing them of trespassing on private land to access public land them in 2020.

Meanwhile, in the separate federal court action, the hunters on Friday filed a document expressing their desire to keep the lawsuit filed against them in U.S. District Court, arguing the issue of control over public land is one that needs to be settled by a federal court.

“Lurking behind and hulking over (Iron Bar Ranch’s) state court pleadings stands a federal law behemoth: exclusive control over ‘common corners’ in checkerboarded lands shared by private lands and federally owned public lands and, as a result, the right to access public lands,” the hunters said in their response to Iron Bar Ranch’s attempts to move the lawsuit back to state district court, where it originated. 

“(Iron Bar’s) claims necessarily raise substantial, deeply disputed questions of federal law because (Iron Bar) effectively seeks ownership and exclusive control overt the federally owned public domain, a question expressly controlled by federal laws and assigned to the federal courts for resolution,” it continued.

Wyoming’s “checkerboard” land pattern creates a situation where parcels of public and private land alternate. Often, parcels of public land are diagonal from each other and share a common coroner with private lands.

The four Missouri hunters used a ladder-like device to cross from one piece of public property to another without trespassing on Iron Bar’s property, but they were accused of violating Iron Bar’s airspace.

The lawsuit filed by Iron Bar — separate from the criminal charges filed against the hunters — seeks $75,000 in damages on charges they violated the ranch’s airspace. It was originally filed in state court however, the hunters successfully argued that because the lawsuit raised issues of access to public lands, it should be heard in federal court.

Iron Bar, in a filing April 14, asked that the lawsuit be returned to state district court because the trespassing laws being debated are state laws, not federal.

But the hunters, in their April 28 filing, argued that through its lawsuit, Iron Bar is trying to control access to federal lands in violation of federal law.

“(Iron Bar) claims the exclusive right to possess, use and control the common corners in its property shares with federally owned public lands,” the filing said. “Through this case, plaintiff seeks to enforce this claimed right. Because exclusive control of the common corners is exclusive control over access to the public domain, (Iron Bar) necessarily raises the federal issue of whether private landowners may exclude the public from the public domain in this way.”

Because the final decision on the case will determine whether the public can access its own land, the lawsuit should remain in federal court, the filing said.

“The federal issues raised by (Iron Bar’s) claims are substantial because resolution of these claims here—in favor of (Iron Bar) as a private landowner or (the hunters) as members of the public— will decisively control whether the public may cross common corners shared by private and federally owned public lands to reach adjoining public lands for lawful purposes in every case, it said. 

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Corner-Crossing Isn’t Solved Yet; U.S. District Court Now Hearing Case Against Hunters

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By Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily

A jury’s decision that four hunters did not break trespassing laws when they moved from one piece of public land to another may not have an enormous impact on federal land access laws, according to several experts.

However, a lawsuit pending in federal court over the same issue could have historic implications, they said.

Last Friday, four hunters from Missouri were found not guilty by a Carbon County jury for all criminal trespassing charges filed against them for allegedly crossing into the airspace of the Iron Bar Ranch.

The four were charged with trespass even though they used a ladder-like device to move from one piece of public land to another without touching the private property.

An attorney for one of the hunters, Katye Ames, said while the verdict was a victory for her client, it meant little as far as future cases go.

The verdict doesn’t set legal precedent and won’t keep Carbon County Attorney Ashley Davis from filing trespass charges in similar cases in the future she said.

“People could still be cited for this behavior,” Ames said.

William Pendley, acting director of the Bureau of Land Management from 2019 to 2021 under former President Donald Trump, said he supported the jury’s decision.

“In this case it appears the hunters went out of their way to ensure they remained on public land,” he said. 

He added a guilty verdict from the jury might have deterred tourists from choosing Wyoming as a destination for their next hunting trip.

Ames said although she has not spoken to any of the six jurors yet, she thought it likely they found fault with the prosecution’s case. 

“They are on public land, trying to be on public land, this shouldn’t be a crime,” Ames said. “The public thinks this is ridiculous. It’s some rich guy trying to control the land.”

Iron Bar Ranch is owned by North Carolina businessman Frank Eshelman, who Forbes estimated had a net worth of at least $380 million in 2014.

Meanwhile, Karen Budd-Falen, who previously worked in the Trump Administration and has represented many property owners in private property rights disputes, opposed the jury’s decision. 

Budd-Falen said the Wyoming Game and Fish “Access Yes” program is specifically designed to grant hunters and fisherman access to private, state and landlocked public lands with the participation of private property owners. 

She also said local authorities have no right to enforce the federal laws the hunters claim they were infringed.

“They would have to go to the U.S. Attorney for that,” she said.

The three agreed however, that the question of whether corner-crossing is legal activity will likely be decided by the ongoing federal court case related to trespassing case. In that case, pending in U.S. District Court, Iron Bar has filed a lawsuit against the hunters, seeking damages for trespassing.

“It’s a big deal as far as private property rights,” said Budd-Falen said.

Budd-Falen said the future of private airspace will be influenced by the federal decision and may affect, in particular, the laws implemented regarding the flying of drones.

“I believe you own your private airspace above you until you reach a certain height,” Falen said. “That case will have an impact.”

Falen, Pendley and Ames — who is not representing the hunters in the federal case — all agreed that the civil matter still pending will hold more of a lasting legacy when it comes to this complicated issue, a matter of great importance to many Wyoming residents who hunt and recreate on public lands.

“I’m optimistic the outcome of that will be in our favor,” Ames said. “I think that will make future criminal charges void.”

Iron Bar has requested the federal case be remanded back to Carbon County, a move the defendants have opposed but Budd-Falen supports, saying the case might be viewed differently by a new jury. 

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Elk Mountain Ranch Owner Wants ‘Corner Crossing’ Case Returned To State Court

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The owner of a Carbon County ranch suing four Missouri hunters for crossing into the ranch’s private airspace wants the case returned to state district court.

Iron Bar Holdings, in a motion filed in U.S. District Court on April 14, told the court it had no jurisdiction over the case, which stems from allegations the hunters trespassed on Iron Bar’s property while moving from one piece of public land to another.

“While it is true (the hunters) trespassed across (Iron Bar’s) property to reach land managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management, that fact is of no consequence to the jurisdictional analysis here” the motion said.

The case stems from an incident in late September when the hunters used a “ladder-like” device to cross from one parcel of public land to another.

Southern Wyoming has a “checkerboard” land pattern in which public and private lands are intermingled. Those properties often share corners, with two public parcels resting diagonally from each other.

The hunters did not actually touch the private property owned by Iron Bar when they moved from one public parcel to another, but the company alleged they violated private airspace by “corner crossing.”

The four hunters are facing criminal trespass charges in Carbon County and Iron Bar had filed a civil lawsuit against them as well over the alleged trespass.

But the hunters successfully argued that because the lawsuit had to do with access to federal land, the case should be heard in federal court and it was moved there on March 31.

Iron Bar, in its request to move the case back to state district court, maintained that there is no issue for the federal court to settle, since both the lawsuit and criminal charges were filed under Wyoming trespass laws.

In addition, Iron Bar did nothing to prevent the hunters from entering public land, it just enforced its rights to prevent trespass on its private property.

“(Iron Bar’s) claim for civil trespass is that (the hunters) made an unauthorized entry upon (Iron Bar’s) private property,” its filing said. “(Iron Bar) does not claim the (hunters) cannot enter public lands, only that the (hunters) are not permitted to enter (Iron Bar’s) privately owned property and airspace.”

As a result, the hunters have failed to show that the case should be tried in federal court, Iron Bar’s motion said.

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Hunters Say ‘Corner Crossing’ Lawsuit An Attempt To Close All Public Land Access

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Four hunters accused of trespass are asking a federal judge to rule a private landowner in Carbon County is illegally blocking access to public lands.

In the latest filing in a lawsuit against the hunters filed by Iron Bar Holdings, the four ask U.S. District Court to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the company’s efforts amount to an attempt to control public land.

“(Iron Bar) claims that it and other private landowners like it may dominate the open range and enclose the vastness of the public domain in the American West,” said the request for dismissal filed Monday. “(Iron Bar) claims that private landowners alone may control who among us gets to access, enjoy and step foot on certain federally owned public lands.

“Because (Iron Bar’s) claims depend on violations of federal laws governing the use of and access to federally owned public lands and are, accordingly, preempted by these federal laws and related federal policies, (the hunters) respectfully request that this case dismiss (Iron Bar’s) claims,” it continued.

The lawsuit stems from allegations the four Missouri hunters — Bradley Cape, Zachary Smith, Phillip Yoemans and John Slowensky — violated Iron Bar’s airspace when they crossed from one parcel of federal land to another in Carbon County.

Southern Wyoming has a “checkerboard” land patter in which public and private lands are intermingled. Those properties often share corners, with two public parcels resting diagonally from each other. 

In late September, the four hunters used a “ladder-like” device to cross from one piece of public property to another at a corner shared with Iron Bar’s property without actually touching the private property.

But in its lawsuit, Iron Bar said the hunters invaded the airspace above its private property. The company wants the court to rule such activities, known as “corner crossing,” amount to trespass.

But the hunters said the company’s claims are to an effort to keep the public off of public lands in violation of federal law and contrary to previous federal court rulings.

“Federal law prohibits (Iron Bar) from intentionally enclosing federally owned public lands as well as excluding others from the public domain,” it said. 

The request cited the Unlawful Inclosures of Public Lands Act of 1885, which was adopted to keep cattle producers from locking away large tracts of public land from farmers.

“For over a century, Congress has maintained federal laws that expressly forbid any private individual or private corporation from enclosing the public domain for the purpose of monopolizing both access to and use and enjoyment of the public domain,” the request said.

In addition to violating federal law, Iron Bar has not alleged that the hunters caused any actual damage to its property, meaning it has no cause to file a lawsuit, the request said.

The request asked the federal court to uphold the federal laws governing access to public lands and dismiss the lawsuit.

Because this Court should not repeal those federal laws by implication or otherwise displace those laws to accommodate (Iron Bar’s) preferred rendition of its property rights and entitlement to control access to federally owned public lands, (Iron Bar) has failed to state any claim upon which relief can be granted,” it said. “For all the reasons provided herein, Defendants respectfully request that this Court dismiss Plaintiff’s Complaint. 

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GoFundMe Page To Support Cross-Corner Hunters Now Up to Nearly $70,000

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

Four Missouri hunters are being sued in federal court for crossing the airspace of private property while moving from one parcel of public land to another in Carbon County.

Iron Bar Holdings is asking the U.S. District Court to find the hunters guilty of civil trespass because they used a device to move across the private property — without touching it — while moving from one piece of U.S. Bureau of Land Management land to another in a practice called “corner crossing.”

“(Iron Bar) owns and controls the airspace above its real property and is entitled to exclude others from the use of that airspace by a ‘corner crossing,” the lawsuit said.

Meanwhile, a “GoFundMe” campaign set up to support the hunters, who also face criminal charges of trespass, had raised more than $69,000 as of Thursday.

According to the lawsuit, hunters Bradley Cape, Zachary Smith, Phillip Yoemans and John Slowensky were on BLM land in Carbon County in late September.

Southern Wyoming has what is referred to as a “checkerboard” land pattern because public and private lands are intermingled. Often, public lands are positioned diagonally to each other and share their corners with private lands. Crossing from one public land parcel to another without accessing the private land can be difficult, if not impossible.

According to the lawsuit, the hunters built a “ladder-like” device to cross from one public land parcel to another without touching the private land.

However, in doing so, the four crossed into the airspace of the private land, the lawsuit said.

“(Iron Bar) has a right to exclusive control, use and enjoyment of its property, which includes the airspace at the coroner, above the property,” the lawsuit said. “For purposes of this complaint and under controlling law, the property includes the airspace above the surface of the land, the surface of the land and the subsurface below.”

Although the hunters were hunting on public land, they did not have the authority to trespass on Iron Bar’s land, the lawsuit said.

“The ability of (the hunters) to be upon and use public lands does not include any right or privilege whatsoever, whether express or implied, to cross private property to get to adjoining public lands.,” it said.

The hunters did not ask for permission to enter Iron Bar’s property, the lawsuit said, and as a result of the trespass, the company, based in North Carolina, has suffered damages.

The lawsuit asks the court to find the four hunters guilty of trespass and to issue an injunction barring them from “corner crossing” in the future. It also asks for damages from the hunters in an amount to be determined at trial.

The four hunters were also charged in Carbon County with trespassing to hunt and all have pleaded not guilty. Their trial is to begin April 14.

A GoFundMe campaign organized by in part by Wyoming Backcountry Hunters and Anglers has raised $69,325 for the men.

The campaign page said the support is needed to make access to public lands easier.

“Acquittal of these hunters would set the stage for more access to the public lands we own,” it said. “It is crucial public land hunters band together to fight for access to cornered public land!”

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State of Wyoming Closes On Pilot Hill Deal Near Laramie

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

An exchange of lands expected to open up recreational opportunities on land east of Laramie has been completed by the state, Gov. Mark Gordon announced Monday.

Gordon, in a news release, said the state Board of Land Commissioners has closed on the exchange of 11,668 acres of state trust land for the 4,343-acre Pilot Hill property in Albany County.

“The culmination of this effort is a win for all Wyoming residents,” Gordon said. “The state will see increased leasing revenues and access to this land will enhance our recreation economy by attracting additional visitors and improving the quality of life for citizens.”

The state land used for the exchange in Albany and Laramie counties is valued at $7.98 million, while the Pilot Hill parcel is valued at $8 million

In addition to making the land available for recreation including hiking, bicycling and horseback riding, the exchange protects the Casper Aquifer, a geologic feature that filters rain and snow to provide drinking water for Albany County residents, the news release said.

Discussions over the land began more than two years ago when the land’s owners, the Warren Livestock Co., offered to sell it to Albany County.

The university bought an adjacent 1,233 acres of land and the two properties will be managed jointly.

Plans call for a trail system to cross the land link it to the Medicine Bow National Forest to the east.

More than $1 million has been donated to help pay for access and infrastructure development on the land.

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Act Now And Save! Free Entrance Fees at All National Parks on Wednesday

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It’s like one of those crazy “Christmas in August” sales you used to see in the 1970s and 1980s where the prices are so low, its C-R-A-Z-Y!

Except this time, it’s not Crazy Eddie wearing a Santa hat and yelling about discounted boom-boxes, it’s Department of Interior Secretary David L. Bernhardt offering free entrance fees at all national parks on Wednesday.

This goes along with President Trump’s signing of the Great American Outdoors Act which will provide a sizable and long-term boost of funding to national parks and other federal lands.

“President Trump has just enacted the most consequential dedicated funding for national parks, wildlife refuges, public recreation facilities and American Indian school infrastructure in U.S. history,” Secretary Bernhardt said. “I’ve designated August 4th as Great American Outdoors Day and waived entrance fees to celebrate the passage of this historic conservation law.”

This means all entrance fees will be waived Wednesday on public lands managed by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

And just like the Crazy Eddie commercials, there’s legalese at the very end of the announcement.

In this case, they just want to make sure you are aware that the fee waiver only applies to entrance fees. You don’t get a month of free camping if you act now, for example.

“Other fees, such as overnight camping, cabin rentals, group day use, and use of special areas, will remain in effect,” according to the Interior Department.

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Wyoming Top Officials Authorize Bid For 1 Million Acres of Occidental Land

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The state’s top elected officials on Monday authorized the state to submit a bid for the purchase of more than 1 million acres of private land in southern Wyoming.

The officials, meeting as members of the State Loan and Investment Board, voted unanimously to authorize the state to move ahead with a bid for land currently owned by Occidental Petroleum.

The action came after a more than seven-hour meeting that included an executive session that ran for more than three and one-half hours as members of the board debated whether to proceed with the bid.

The motion approved by the board authorizes Gov. Mark Gordon, Treasurer Curt Meier and the state’s chief investment officer to submit a bid for the land — along with 4 million acres of mineral rights — that would provide the best return for the state. The measure specified the three can submit a bid for all or only part of the Occidental holdings.

In response to criticism that the state has not been transparent enough in how it has been handling the possible purchase, the motion also specifies that before any purchase is approved, four public meetings will be held during which public comments will be accepted on the deal.

“I feel particularly good about the current motion where it requires additional time for additional public comments,” said state Auditor Kristi Racines.

Racines echoed earlier statements buy Gordon and Meier that the decision to submit a bid does not make the state’s purchase of the land a foregone conclusion.

“This is far from a done deal and there are certainly a lot of prices where I would not support an end result,” she said. “This is just not final. It is just one step in a process that may or may not go forward.”

4 Million Acre Occidental Land Purchase Could Have 7.25% Return

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The state’s purchase of 1 million acres of land in southern Wyoming could generate a long-term return of about 7.25% if the state purchased the rights to trona in that land as well, a consultant told state officials Monday.

Becky Gratsinger, CEA and senior consultant with R.V. Kuhns, said if the trona was removed from the purchase, the purchase price would be lower and the long-term return could be higher, around 11%, but the risk for that return would be higher as well.

Gratsinger’s comments came as the State Loan and Investment Board held a public hearing to discuss the state’s possible purchase of 1 million acres of land currently owned by Occidental Petroleum, an potential investment referred to as “Project Bison.”

The board, made up of the state’s top five elected officials, took comments and heard reports on the proposal during a lengthy meeting. At around 2:30 p.m., members moved into an executive session and had not returned to open session by 4:30 p.m.

Wyoming officials are to decide by Wednesday whether they will submit a bid for the land, which also includes about 4 million acres of mineral rights.

State Treasurer Curt Meier, one of the state’s top five elected officials who make up the SLIB, said if the board members decided after Monday’s meeting to submit a bid, it would just be the start of a lengthy process that could end with the state’s purchase of the property.

“This is a non-binding bid, more or less,” he said. “This is just authorizing the process to start, not authorizing the process to finish.”

During the hearing, conducted via an onllne video conferencing app, almost 20 people commented on the purchase in their first opportunity to address the issue with the SLIB.

A number of those speakers criticized the board for what they said was a lack of transparency in examining the issue.

“You have dissembled, misdirected, stonewalled and hidden what you are doing,” said Larry Wolfe. 

“At this time, many of us are in the dark about this deal and are shocked and disappointed at the lack of transparency and the enormity of the transaction,” said Julia Willis.

But Gov. Mark Gordon, chairman of the SLIB, said the state has been as open as possible in discussing the potential deal and noted that at least four more public hearings will be held to collect comments before any deal wins final approval if the state decides to proceed with the purchse.

Several others noted that the nature of a real estate purchase makes it necessary to keep some information confidential.

“Why would you present your bid documents,” said state Rep. Pat Sweeney, R-Casper. “That’s like handing your competitors the relevant knowledge that we have as a state.”

Current plans call for money for any purchase to come from the state’s Permanent Mineral Trust Fund  and Common School Fund. 

Officials said if the land is purchased, some of it might be leased to mineral producers. 

Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, said he was worried that the state’s ownership of the land could lead to political pressures being put on land managers.

“The temptation will be for the trona industry to come to the governor, the Legislature … and say ‘Give us a break on the rent of we’re going to have to lay people off,’” he said.

Other legislators said they supported the purchase as a wise investment for the state.

“This really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the state of Wyoming and all our citizens,” said Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton.

Several speakers said they wondered why Wyoming officials believe the state can make money through mineral production on the land when mineral companies have been unable to do so.

“We have a history in Wyoming of thinking we can always outthink the mineral industry,” said Anne McKinnon. “That’s a temptation we’ve always had and it’s never proven to be a good idea. I worry about us taking this investment on thinking we can play with the big boys.”

Meier said he thought it was possible Wyoming would not have the successful bid for the land, but might get an opportunity to buy some of it from the successful bidder.

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State To Consider Occidental Land Purchase Monday

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By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

The state’s top five officials on Monday will consider offering a bid for about 1 million acres of private land in southern Wyoming, Gov. Mark Gordon announced Wednesday.

Gordon, speaking during a news conference, said the state’s top five elected officials, meeting as the State Loan and Investment Board, will decide whether to offer a bid to Occidental Petroleum for the purchase of the land and about 4 million acres of accompanying mineral rights.

Occidental had originally set a deadline of July 1 to accept any bids for the land, but Gordon said the company extended the deadline by a week because of complications created by the coronavirus.

He added members of the public will be able to comment on the proposal during Monday’s meeting. If a bid is made and accepted, triggering a start to negotiations, a series of public meetings will also be held where input will be accepted, he said.

“I want to assure the people they will have every opportunity to understand the details of this bid and not only that, they will have a chance to comment,” he said.

He added the decision of whether to offer a bid will depend entirely on whether the purchase makes sense as an entry into the state’s portfolio of investments.

“This is strictly a case of will this investment pay dividends back to the state,” he said.

The Legislature, during its general session, approved a bill authorizing the executive branch to look into the purchase. Gordon vetoed the bill because he said it imposed too many restrictions on the executive branch, but he vowed to continue reviewing the possible deal and to keep both the Legislature and members of the public informed as to its progress.

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