The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Backcountry access is wildly complicated

Runners on the Gateway Loop Trail at the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2017. (Caitlin O'Hara for The Washington Post)
5 min

Maddy Butcher is the author of “Beasts of Being: Partnerships Unburdened” and director of the Best Horse Practices Summit.

MONTEZUMA COUNTY, Colo. — Hunters and backcountry enthusiasts celebrated in May when a federal district judge in Casper, Wyo., ruled in favor of four hunters, dismissing the civil case brought against them by a wealthy landowner from North Carolina.

The hunters had “corner crossed.” Like checker pieces on a game board, they had moved diagonally from one public land parcel to another. They didn’t touch the North Carolina financier’s 22,045-acre ranch land, everyone agreed, but he maintained that they had entered his airspace and therefore trespassed, to the tune of $7.75 million in damages.

For a moment, it seemed the little guy and advocates for public land access had won. But wait.

In Colorado, an angler lost a similar public/private battle in June when the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the landowner. The Arkansas River might seem like a historic public way in Colorado, but when a river or stream flows through private land, the court ruled, wading by members of the public is not okay. Meanwhile, in New Mexico, it is okay. In Utah, it depends.

Across the West, courts are reflecting the struggles that residents and visitors face in trying to balance public trust and private land ownership. Some cast it as simple battles of rich vs. poor, or of locals vs. out-of-towners. But it’s not so simple.

As outdoor recreation increasingly fuels economies here and as landowners assert their rights, the clashes — not just in courts but also across streams, fence lines and dirt paths — will continue.

A journalist friend, Jason Blevins, compared this moment to the 19th-century gold and silver rushes in the West, when mining quickly became a driver of all things economic, cultural, political and social. With the growing impact of nature seekers, he said, “big shifts are underway.”

It wasn’t long ago that visiting hikers and mountain bikers were considered nuisance breeds here in southwestern Colorado. They couldn’t possibly contribute to the local economy, said one county commissioner at a meeting I attended a few years ago, because they all “just eat nuts and berries.”

That was before the pandemic and before a $2 million shortfall in our county’s budget, because of a bust in oil-and-gas-related income.

This summer, the county’s newly created Outdoor Recreation Industry Office hosted public workshops to share their findings. Turns out, some 2 million visitors spend more than $100 million annually in our little corner of the West, according to RPI Consulting, the firm hired to do an economic assessment.

While real estate agents, backcountry outfitters and bike shops are celebrating, many of us here struggle to roll with the triple influx of transplants, second-home owners and visitors. Like the courts, when we consider the multifaceted impact of this population flow, we’re conflicted.

While newcomers are nothing new in the West, I feel for communities such as Gallatin County in Montana and Weld County in northern Colorado, whose populations have swelled more than 30 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the Census Bureau.

Mountain towns, also known as old mining towns, are particularly challenged with embracing (or not), educating (or not) and planning (or not) for the influx of people who want to get some of that nature in their bones or in their real estate holdings.

The abundance of natural attractions is sometimes called the amenity trap, and at least one research group has funded a study to help communities avoid “being loved to death.”

There is problem-grappling, such as what needs to happen on a community level, and then there is problem-grappling — and self-education — that needs to happen personally:

When I moved to Colorado from Utah several years ago, someone handed me “The Good Neighbor Guidebook for Colorado.” Edited by two lawyers, the book helps readers navigate the laws and customs around fencing, water use, wildlife and livestock. In this state, your dogs can legally be shot for chasing deer; you can’t divert a stream even a little bit; you must mitigate your noxious weeds; and if you don’t want cattle grazing your land, you’ll have to fence them out.

Locals might also recommend getting a phone app that delineates clearly whether you’re on public or private land. Think signs will guide you? What signs?

If a gate in the wilderness is closed, make sure you leave it closed. And don’t close an open gate. (Doing so could keep livestock from water and is a possible felony.).

Cluelessness abounds. On public land, on a sweltering afternoon, I’ve been told to go somewhere else to let my horses and dogs drink, as if this single visitor owned the immediate water access. I’ve seen young hikers in the woods, dressed in tan during hunting season, looking more like deer than they realize, and unaware that hunting season is a thing. I’ve seen private lands treated like public lands and public lands treated like gift shops, with visitors taking home artifacts, plants and animals.

As we twist and turn around boundaries and rights, we might pause to consider also doing some problem-grappling on an ecosystem level: Elk, bear, marmots and coyotes move to places where there is less pressure from human presence. But lately, that pressure is coming at them from all sides.