Here in Minnesota, the most reliable supporters of Republicans are gun owners, hunters, and fishing fanatics. Even our Democratic governor made appeasing that demographic a key part of his electoral success, and I don’t mind — it’s a bridge to environmental action, you know. I also have roots in the Western US, where a major issue is individual liberty to use local resources.
Here’s an interesting case of private interference in individual liberty.
OnX is an app that’s intended to help hunters find public land so they can go after deer, elk, or whatever they happen to be hunting. At first glance, that may not seem like news, but users of that app get an invaluable view of just who owns the property around them, which is critical when trying to reach public lands where hunting is legal. They have also gotten a very clear view of something that is otherwise hidden from the public: how corporations, millionaires, and billionaires have blocked out huge chunks of public property so that they alone can access it—without paying a dime.
They do this by creating public land “islands,” areas that are surrounded by privately held property. The public lands in these islands become de facto parts of the surrounding property. In most states, there is absolutely no rule that says the property owners have to do anything to allow access to that island of land.
One of their tactics is to divide the land into a checkerboard — squares of private ownership around public land that are in contact at only their corners. The rich want to make it illegal to step across any of those corners!
Well aware of how prickly many land owners are about hunters crossing their property, Cape located an area of “checkerboard” control. That is, the land is divided into one mile-by-one mile sections, half of which are public property, half of which are privately owned, like the black and white squares on a checkboard.
At one place on this checkboard map, Eshelman controlled two squares that met at a corner. The other two squares were public property. Using OnX, Cape mapped out the exact location and led three friends in stepping across the corner from one public square to the other. They not only didn’t step on Eshelman’s land, the area of his property they crossed was infinitely small. Not one state has laws against this “corner crossing,” which is common in areas where grants of public land were once given to railroad companies in an effort to “open up” the West.
The rich guy who has bought up these parcels of land, drug company executive Fredric Eshelman, is upset at this simple privilege. He’s an extraordinarily greedy person.
Eshelman owns 23,277 acres near Elk Mountain, but in prosecuting this case against corner-crossing, he attempted to block access to 1.6 million acres of public land.
So he’s suing four hunters who stepped across the mathematically infinitesimal corner boundary for $7 million. He lost a criminal trial against them — it would have been difficult to show that they’d deprived him of anything — so he’s making a civil case of it, and since he’s rich, he can harass the hunters with lawsuits until he wins. Sadly, people in Wyoming (Wyoming! Deeply Republican Wyoming!) think the hunters will eventually lose.
No matter how ridiculous this may all seem, and no matter the quick outcome of the jury trial, Wyoming officials are convinced that the landowners will win in the end. According to a Republican attorney who formerly worked for the state attorney general’s office, if the hunters win, “it would not surprise me at all that the Legislature would come back and pass a law saying corner crossing is illegal. It’s sort of if you win, you lose, and if you lose, you lose.”
This is the kind of case that ought to unite everyone, Republican rednecks, environmentalists, Democrats, people who want to look for spiders, just everyone, in opposing this scheme. I don’t like the idea that filthy rich assholes can wall off huge chunks of public land to create private game hunting parks for themselves. Unfortunately, there are also lots of ranchers who exploit the Wyoming checkerboard for their personal gain.
By the way, Eshelman is a hard right Republican donor.