You’re pinched by a corner crossing, and out of luck. The elk are as safe as if they were standing on inaccessible private land.
You greet 5 a.m. with your boots on, headed uphill. By dawn, you are miles from camp and have a band of 12 elk in your binocular. They’re grazing lazily away from you along the opposite slope, flirting within rifle range in the early morning quiet. And like you, they are standing on public land.
There are no fences or physical obstacles separating you from the herd, and you could walk to them without ever setting foot on private property. Moving into shooting position, however, could earn you a trespass charge.
Because standing in your way is an invisible, dimensionless barrier—the point at which two parcels of private land and two parcels of public land meet corner to corner, like the black and white squares of a chessboard. You’re pinched by a corner crossing, and out of luck. The elk are as safe as if they were standing on inaccessible private land.
If the situation sounds painfully familiar, you’re not alone. According to Landlocked, a GIS-based public access mapping study conducted by the Center for Western Priorities in 2013, more than 1.5 million acres of public land in the intermountain West are effectively off limits, thanks solely to the public’s inability to legally step across corners.
The corners are remnants of centuries-old land-management policies, by which the American West was divided into a giant grid of square, 640-acre “sections.” It was a handy system for making sense, at least on paper, of a sprawling, unknown wilderness. The grid survey also served well for distributing land to territories to form states; to homesteaders to encourage settlement; to corporations to build railroads; to Native American tribes for reservations; to the military to build bases; and for otherwise disposing of the young nation’s vast real estate holdings.
What wasn’t sold or transferred remained federal land, and is today managed for the beneficial use of all Americans by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Forest Service, and National Park Service. This is the land on which most western sportsmen hunt and fish.
Parcels have, over time, been divided, combined, and reshaped by the hands of commerce and politics. Not everything is perfectly square anymore. But the original grid can still be imagined as a multi-colored Tetris puzzle—a square of BLM land, nestled inside an L-shaped state parcel, which abuts a T of private ground, and a long skinny rectangle of National Forest—that are western property maps today. There are still plenty of corners.