A little more than a week ago, the Montana Sportsmen Alliance launched an online petition calling on the 2013 Montana Legislature to pass House Bill 235, a measure legalizing corner-crossing in the state. The group hoped to see at least some interest in the petition. But MSA co-founder Vito Quatraro was stunned when, by the end of the first day, the group already had nearly 1,000 signatures—many from out-of-state supporters keen to improve access to public lands.
“Other states are watching us,” Quatraro says. “If the precedent gets set, you’ll see other states try to bring forth a similar bill. This is not unique to Montana.”
In other words, Montana was primed this week to be the first state to answer one of the biggest questions facing public access in the West: Is corner-crossing legal, or illegal? But precedent passed us by Wednesday morning; HB 235 failed in the House Judiciary Committee with all Republican committee members—including the bill’s own bipartisan co-sponsor, Laurel Rep. Krayton Kerns—voting against the measure.
The bill’s primary sponsor, Missoula Democratic Rep. Ellie Hill, now intends to blast the bill to the floor of the House and let the entire body decide its immediate fate.
Corner-crossing is sportsmen slang for the act of accessing a parcel of land by stepping—or, in some cases, fence-hopping—over the point at which four parcels meet. It’s not as easy as it sounds when you consider Montana’s patchwork of public and private lands; step over private property to get to an adjacent piece of federal or state property and, technically speaking, you’re trespassing. The state currently has an estimated 1.3 million acres of land-locked public land that, unless you’re an adjacent landowner, you can’t get to. And while Montana’s trespassing laws are largely vague on the subject, most consider corner-crossing illegal.
The legal debate first came to Hill’s attention a decade ago. She distinctly remembers hanging out in her parents’ restaurant in Idaho, listening to a pair of “old-timers” just back from a Montana hunting trip bemoan their run-in with the sticky nature of corner-crossing. It’s the kind of story you’ll hear around campfires all over the West, she says. A similar attempt to legalize corner-crossing by then-Rep. Paul Clark failed in 2005. Hill felt the chances for success this time around were significantly better, given the increased strength of sportsmen organizations in recent years and the apparent support of Kerns, who chairs the Judiciary Committee.
“There are a lot of other issues that, in the end, we’re just Montanans,” says Hill, who worked up the bill’s language with three University of Montana law students. “Hunting and sportsmen and public lands—a lot of us have a lot in common.”
Apparently not. Corner-crossing has its passionate detractors, the most vocal of which is the Montana Stockgrowers Association. The issue in many ways represents a standoff between two key themes in the West: private property rights and public access. Opponents contend that HB 235 would have chipped away at private property rights, paving the way for increased trespassing. If a corner is fenced, landowners posit the public will simply walk to the nearest gate and trespass across their property anyway.
Ariel Overstreet testified before the House Judiciary Jan. 21 on behalf of two stockgrower organizations, alleging that HB 235 was an “erosion” of private property rights guaranteed under the U.S. and Montana constitutions.
“The majority of people that own land in Montana are your neighbors,” she told the committee. “They’re farmers and ranchers. They’re people that care about making a living off the land...The Montana Stockgrowers Association and Montana CattleWomen oppose any effort to impose upon unwilling landowners public access across their land.”
Quatraro doesn’t buy those opposing arguments, and believes the case for corner-crossing has improved steadily since 2005. Advances in the reliability and availability of GPS technology have made it easier for hunters, anglers and hikers to pinpoint corners even on land that isn’t fenced, he says. And considering the bulk of sportsmen already avoid corner-crossing for fear of breaking the law, Quatraro feels it’s the law-abiding people, not the trespassers and poachers, who are being punished.
“We all support private property rights,” Quatraro says. “We don’t want them violated. But at the same time, we support public property rights. We don’t want those violated.”
Hill takes her skepticism about corner-crossing opposition a step further. She believes the issue is indicative of the gentrification of the West over time. Millionaires have increasingly flocked to Montana, snatching up private tracts that border public land and locking out the public. In an Indy feature on corner-crossing published last July, writer Dameon Matule pointed to Ted Turner’s 22,000-acre Bar None Ranch in southwestern Montana as a prime example. The ranch offers private elk hunts on public land for $14,000. But staff regularly patrol the property and do not allow the public to corner-cross onto that same parcel.
Hill believes it’s landowners like Turner Enterprises, not the long-established farmers and ranchers in the state, who have come out strongest against efforts like HB 235.
“To me that’s the tipping point between 2005 and now,” Hill says. “Too many people have been affected at this point. It’s not the same kind of fifth-generation family ranches and farms anymore. Those guys aren’t the problem—and certainly, from what I’ve seen, aren’t the ones rattling cages to oppose the bill.”
More than anything, Quatraro says the sportsmen he represents just wanted a clear answer on corner-crossing. The signatures on his group’s petition, which now number more than 2,160, reveal as much. But HB 235’s failure in committee this week hasn’t given them one.
“I think people just want to know: Legal or not legal?”