Fight for landlocked hunting grounds continues

Feb 22, 2013

Montana ranchers last week headed to the state capital to fight the “Corner Crossing” bill that could have legalized trespassing for hunters.

House Bill 235 would have given access to more than 800,000 acres of public land that is surrounded by private land.

Rep. Ellie Hill’s, D–Missoula, bill would have allowed someone to walk across the corner of private property to access public lands.

“This law would no longer criminalize a Montana sportsman from jumping from one corner of public land to another corner of public land. We’re talking about hopscotch folks,” Hill testified last week. “Leaping from one public corner to the other and never touching the soil of a private property’s land.”

But most landowners disagree.

“It’s not about hopscotch. It’s about trespassing onto private property,” Rep. Jeffrey Welborn, R–Dillon, disagreed.

The bill died on the House floor in a 45-54 vote.

But the hunters and advocacy groups that packed the chamber in support of the measure say the fight is not over. Supporters of House Bill 235 said denying access at such corners ensures that mega-land owners like Ted Turner can lock up blocks of public land.

Randy Newberg of the Headwaters Sportsmen Association said not everyone is wealthy enough to own prime hunting ground, so they will continue to work to obtain access to public land.

“Can a person be a property right advocate while denying your neighbor the use and enjoyment of their adjacent properties to the full extent provided by the law?” Newberg asked in a rally on the capitol steps. “I say no.”

Rep. Ellie Hill, D–Missoula, said currently there isn’t clear guidance in statute or in case law about how the public can access these landlocked blocks of property.

“I will say it right here, civil disobedience. Get cited,” Hill encouraged the sportsmen. “And a ballot initiative.”

Supporters, led by Democrats, tried unsuccessfully to get the bill through committee. Republicans used their majority to defeat the motion.

According to Wellborn, other measures are needed that support both hunters and landowners.

“I believe this is going to further drive a wedge between landowners and sportsmen,” Wellborn said of the bill. “We need to come together, not further drive that wedge between us.”

Republicans successfully advanced the Block Management Program that pays landowners for hunter access. House Bill 404 is one of several measures in the works to improve hunter access, according to Republicans.

But Democrats disagree, claiming that the program takes money from a habitat program, and goes into the pockets of Montana landowners who won’t allow access to the lands.

Bill Berg of Lewistown, with the Russell Country Sportsmen, said jumping over an intersection of land at the corners isn’t trespass any more than an airplane that flies over.

The advocates promised to keep pushing the issue.

“This corner crossing problem is not going to go away. It needs to be addressed,” Berg said. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor