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.
Now, in what may be one of the most egregious case of someone using their power and wealth to bully both local residents and officials, drug company executive Fredric Eshelman—net worth $380 million—is trying to make the situation even worse. He’s trying to block off huge areas of land even when he doesn’t surround them, by pressing a case that would make it much easier to prevent the public from reaching public land.
In the process, Eshelman is trying to financially destroy four hunters for “trespassing,” even though they literally never set one foot on his property. The outcome of this case will affect not just hunters and fishermen, but hikers, bird watchers, artists, photographers, and anyone who simply wants to access land that belongs to all of us.
As The New York Times reported on Saturday, the OnX app is at the center of the controversial case now being tried in Carbon County, Wyoming, because that app was used by Missouri bow hunter Bradly Cape in plotting how out he would access the public lands around Elk Mountain in Wyoming.
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.
Legally, Eshelman can’t run a fence across that corner. So instead he installed “no trespassing” signs at the corners of each of his squares, leaving only a few inches in between (a photograph of the signs is in the Times article). But in a return visit the hunters, aware of the signs after scouting the location, brought with them a specially constructed short ladder, allowing them to hop over the space between the signs.
As WyoFile reports, Eshelman’s ranch manager spotted Cape’s group on the public property. After ranch workers harassed the hunters, including chasing them with pickup trucks which Eshelman’s men drove across the public land, the manager called the local sheriff along with Wyoming Fish and Game in an effort to charge the hunters with criminal trespass. Originally, officers from both agencies informed that manager that they didn’t issue trespassing charges for corner crossing. But days later, after the manager pressured local officials by reminding them of Eshelman’s importance in the county, another fish and game deputy issued the charge.
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.
The case went to trial in April, with the local district attorney claiming that someone would be prospected for trespass just for violating the “airspace” above private land (which would certainly be news to the FAA). It only took a local jury about two hours to decide the whole thing was ridiculous and find the four men not guilty.
That should have been the end of the whole thing, but after failing to get what he wanted from the criminal trespass case, Eshelman piled on to the hunters with a civil suit “for causing millions of dollars in damage” which seeks not only compensation for this supposed damage, but for the hunters to pay all legal fees in both the criminal and civil cases. He is seeking an incredible $7 million in damages for disturbing a few inches of air over his land.
As Donald Trump has illustrated so frequently, those who are wealthy enough can work the courts endlessly, using them both as a means to batter others into submission, and as a means of evading personal responsibility for anything. Hunting groups and other advocates for access to public land have raised $110,000 to help cover the legal fees, which threaten to crush the four hunters.
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.”
Though most people are unaware, that kind of checkerboard control covers a huge amount of the American West, and blocking access to public land by this route would make equally huge areas completely inaccessible. The implications would reach far beyond one jackass pharma millionaire who used his Wall Street earnings to snap up some of Wyoming’s most beautiful property.
The answer to a Wyoming law saying corner crossing is illegal is simply enough: a federal law saying it is. But Republicans are unlikely to allow such a law to pass, even if every hunter in America calls for it. Because for Republicans, if it comes to a contest between middle-class hunters and wealthy landowners … that’s not even a contest.
According to Forbes, Eshelman made his millions when one of multiple drug companies where he was an executive was sold in 2011 for $3.9 billion. “Eshelman personally made at least $160 million in the sale, after taxes. FORBES estimates that his fortune is worth at least $380 million. Eshelman would not comment on his net worth or on how much he netted from selling his stakes in any of his companies.”
Eshelman is a longtime supporter of conservative Republican politicians. According to WyoFile:
He’s donated millions to conservative Republican candidates running for federal offices. In the 2008 election cycle he pumped $5.5 million into Rightchange.org, Eshelman’s “527” tax-exempt organization “formed primarily to influence a political election,” according to Open Secrets.
OpenSecrets lists Eshelman as the second-highest individual contributor to “Outside Money Organizations” in the 2010 election cycle, with $6,359,660 in contributions. His total contribution to Republican candidates for federal office is at least $28.5 million.
The Republican Party continues to flail and point fingers at one another. The traditional media pretends it did not completely blow it on predicting a “Red Wave” a few weeks ago. On today’s episode Markos is joined by Democratic political strategist Simon Rosenberg. Rosenberg was one of the few outsiders who, like Daily Kos, kept telling the world that these midterms were closer than was being reported. The two do a little gloating about being right in their optimism coming into the 2022 midterm elections and they give their analysis on why Democratic candidates were successful and how terrified the Republican Party is going into 2024.