The Diamond Bar X is a postcard-perfect slice of Montana solitude. A former cattle ranch that’s been parceled up into sprawling home sites, it sits not far outside Augusta, a cowboy town beneath Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, where the Great Plains crash into majestic snow-peaked mountains to dramatic effect.
The area is prime habitat for elk and grizzlies, people are few, and its residents have easy access to countless miles of trails and streams on the adjacent public lands.
And that’s how it functioned for decades, residents said in court, until Joseph Campbell bought 300 acres at the Diamond Bar X, moved in and started putting up locked gates that blocked access to well-trodden thoroughfares that people in the area had used for years.
Within five years, court records say, the police were called 25 times to deal with Campbell’s threats and erratic behavior, and his seeming obsession over keeping people off every inch of his property despite longstanding agreements among the neighbors for access to the neighboring publicly owned land. (In the west’s wide-open spaces, it’s common practice for landowners to negotiate deals – both informal and formal – to allow the public to cross their land to get to hunting spots, streams and trails.)
In 2013, after years of fights and threats, Campbell finally snapped.
He shot and killed his neighbor, Timothy Newman, a man who had repeatedly challenged Campbell over his access-blocking proclivities. Campbell first claimed it was self-defense because Newman threatened him, but last year he finally pleaded guilty to negligent homicide. He’s now on probation, under a 20 years suspended prison sentence.
The case offers a violent, extreme illustration of what many say is a creeping, pervasive and underreported threat to public lands in the west: a widening class battle between private landowners – oftentimes newcomers with little knowledge of the region’s history or law – and the general public expecting to use public lands.
It’s become the new class war of the west, one public lands advocate I interviewed told me. It’s a class war contentious enough he didn’t want his name used beside that characterization.
There are no available statistics on land-access related violence, but throughout the west, anecdotes spring up regularly about chest-thumping, locked gates and confrontations, often with both sides armed. From Wyoming to Idaho to Utah, public access through private land is a hot-button issue in the west.
While public lands advocates battle the Trump administration over its plans to scale back national monuments, some private landowners – whether by tying up land access cases in courts or by putting up physical gates – present a rising threat to the millions of acres set aside for public use.
According to a study from the Center for Western Priorities, 4m acres of public lands in the Rocky Mountain West (Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico) are considered “landlocked”, blocked off by private landowners who control adjacent properties or roadways. Two million of those landlocked acres are in Montana.
The report notes that “land ownership in the Rocky Mountain West is a quilt of federal, state local, Native American and private lands. The patchwork of owners can make it difficult for the public to access lands without trespassing through private lands.”
At the heart of the battle, landowners and recreations groups say, often lies misunderstanding.
New Montana property owners often arrive wanting their own slice of paradise without knowing the decades of legal battles over public lands and a history of allowing neighbors – sometimes after protracted negotiation through governments and courts – to move through roads and trails. A ranch once open to hunting is suddenly posted as private, hunters ignore the gates and signs, and conflict flares.
And in some pockets that have become havens for the uber-rich – like the Crazy Mountains near Livingston – and politically connected, private landowners have tied up huge tracts of prime recreational public lands.
Kate Kelley, public lands specialist with the Center for American Progress, said while natural resource development like oil and gas threatens access to public lands in the west, a major and less noticed peril in Montana – and to a lesser degree in other states – comes from private landowners blocking public access.
“Where Montana stands out is when it comes to how much public land is essentially inaccessible,” said Kelley. “For Montana, it appears that a very real problem is private landowners – including those coming in from out of state – and their unwillingness to grant access to public lands. It’s essentially locking Montanans out of their backyard.”
“I think this is one of the driving factors to loss of access to public lands – people coming in who don’t necessarily understand Montana values,” said Land Tawney of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, a national land conservation group based in Montana.
Flora, a former US Forest Service manager, moved to a sparsely populated area outside the state capital, Helena, in 2005 and into what would be the middle of heated fight over who could use the roads. Two of her neighbors locked in an escalating war over easements – negotiated agreements that allow people to cross private land in order to get to public land – with one neighbor reportedly insisting that if others used his road, he could do whatever he wanted on their land.
In 2011, one of those neighbors turned up dead. No arrests have been made.
Flora and her husband, who were friends with the man who died, packed up and left the state, fearing for their own safety. Given her own experience, and what she saw in her years as a Forest Service manager, Flora believes private conflicts over public land access are on the rise in the west.
The problem, she said, often begins when people misunderstand the historic limits of private property when it connects to public land.
“They have two acres and they think they are in the vast wilderness. They really don’t get it, a lot of the newer people moving it,” said Flora. “I think they are flummoxed by the access laws. It’s about whose got the bigger voice and bigger gun, despite what the law is.”
That’s not to imply there was a period in recent history when everyone roamed through the Rocky Mountain West’s private ranches and farms to hunt and fish wherever they pleased. The region was built on a snatching land from Native Americans and conflicts have long been present over who owns what and goes where for what purpose.
But the frame has changed radically in recent years as longstanding large ranches and farms have been sold and divided into smaller private properties and more people have moved in, including a mass influx of big money to some specific pockets. The issue of public access through private land has always been contentious but the land is getting relatively crowded.
“I know this sounds like an odd thing to say, but we’re kind of running out of land,” said Flora.
Since the 1960s, the population of the Rocky Mountain West has grown at a higher rate than the rest of the United States. States including Idaho and Montana have seen steady population increases in the past 30 years. In other words, this is not a stagnant economic zone lacking for growth. In 1970, Montana’s population was less than 700,000; today it’s more than 1 million. That inward migration has come alongside a shift from an economy based on mining and logging to one based on the service industry. And it’s all brought fast-rising income inequality and an ongoing, roiling culture clash.
In the meantime, things are apt to get messier with more confrontations and court battles. The state of Montana, perhaps showing where it stands, has hired a public lands access specialist, the only one known in the country. He’s been tasked with identifying access problems and brokering agreements between governments, landowners and the public for access.
Montana’s public v private land battle is highly political and became a major flashpoint in the governor’s race last year. The Democrat incumbent, Governor Steve Bullock, hammered his opponent, Republican Greg Gianforte, over a 2009 lawsuit that sought to remove an easement providing river access through Gianforte’s property.
Bullock beat Gianforte, in part by focusing on the issue of access to public lands. Still, Gianforte was elected months later in a special election to replace Zinke as Montana’s congressman.
In a December op-ed in the Washington Post, Bullock criticized Trump’s decision to scale back national monuments, inviting him to Montana and calling public lands a great equalizer. The president’s son Donald Trump Jr appears to already spend significant time hunting in Montana.
Bullock wrote: “You don’t have to have a Swiss bank account to spend a day with a fly rod on the river. You don’t have to have friends in high places to explore mountains and trails. You don’t have to have to own a big piece of property to experience some of the best hunting and fishing in the world.”
It’s still mostly true, but those boundaries are being tested every day.