It's every Montanan's land. 

So why can't we get to it?

Page 3 of 4

According to Beaverhead County Attorney Jed Fitch, a corner can be an infinitely small point on the ground. The land Smith's hunting party was on isn't in Beaverhead County, but Fitch's office has dealt with Turner's lawyers before.

"Even if you were the width of a fly and you crossed that point, you'd still be trespassing into your neighbor's property," Fitch says.

click to enlarge Missoula news

But to go to court, the landowner would have to prove someone trespassed, which, Fitch says, is difficult to do. For a landowner to win a case, there'd have to be evidence, a witness, footprints or a photo.

When Smith's hunting party approached Turner's fence, they were met by ranch staffers on horseback. "The horse patrol on [Turner's] land said, 'No, you can't cross,'" Smith remembers. "Then we said, 'Well, we'll go to the corner.' They said, 'No, that'd be corner-crossing and that'd be illegal."

Corner-crossing wouldn't have been the crime; it would have been trespassing. If Turner's attorneys brought the case to court and won, it would have been the first of its kind.

"That's what everyone's afraid of," Smith says. "These rich landowners have all the money and a ton of attorneys. If they go to court and win, it becomes precedent."

In 2005, Rep. Paul Clark, of Trout Creek, sponsored a bill aimed at making stranded land more accessible. House Bill 510 would've clarified corner-crossing as a legal means of access. The Montana Stockgrowers Association spoke out against the bill, arguing that it violated landowners' right to privacy. The bill died.

Ranchers "are scared of anyone crossing onto private property, but we've got laws to take care of that. Every state agency is trying to discourage people by saying [corner-crossing] isn't legal," Schoonen says. "They're trying to protect their main renters, which are ag people."

Schoonen thinks FWP, the Bureau of Land Management and the DNRC are all catering too heavily to their leaseholders, not only in regard to access but also to the rates they pay. Those three agencies take bids at a minimum of $6.12 a month for every mature cow or cow-calf pair to graze on state school trust lands. The going rate for the same animal or pair of animals on private, non-irrigated grazing land was around $20 in 2010.

Schoonen says every case the PLWA has fought so far has been against a new, out-of-state landowner. Many longtime ranching families in Montana are more willing to grant hunting access, a tradition FWP is actively trying to preserve. He says it becomes a taller task every time these ranching families are squeezed out of public lands by new landowners with deep pockets.

"If a local guy is bidding on the same grazing land as somebody like David Letterman or Ted Turner, there's no way they can win," he says. "Those things are happening right now."

A little bit more

  • Email
  • Print

© 2016 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation