Imagine owning your own slice of paradise in the middle of the National Forest. Your ancestors came here in the mid-1800s and claimed the land as their own. Your great grandparents built the old cabin on the property. They are put to rest in the family cemetery located on the same property. For decades, your family has farmed, mined, and homesteaded on the land, and generation after generation has experienced the fruits of the American Dream. Life is great living on the homestead, but you have one problem, trespassers. Every weekend, someone comes through your property, tearing up your waterholes, tearing down your fences, removing your signs, and intruding into your personal space.
That’s exactly what’s happening with many private landowners in Arizona. Along with the growing popularity of outdoor activities, especially with the ease of motorized access, It’s our responsibility to make sure our friends, family, and other members of the 4×4 community understand the importance of respecting private land access.
Landowners play an essential role in keeping our backroads open.
Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot of stories about private property owners having disputes with trespassers. Because we love to visit historical places, it’s important to understand that many are privately owned and have been for decades. We must recognize that visitors are not always invited.
Private landowners in Arizona are very generous. All over Arizona, you will find small privately-owned parcels of land surrounded by public land. These places are typically panted properties acquired from the federal government by Ranchers, Miners, and Homesteaders before 1976, when land patents were allowed. A majority of these landowners are considerate and keep their gates open for others to pass through. However, many lock their gates and cut off access to vast areas of public lands.
While exploring Arizona’s backcountry, you will come across these privately owned properties. In most cases, you won’t even know you’re there. Many places that appear to be abandoned are, in fact, privately owned. It’s typical for these historical sites to lack signs, fences, or any indication of private ownership. Most of the time, the owners don’t care who visits these abandoned historical sites. Like us, many of them love to explore the Arizona backcountry.
When I encounter these places, I take a few things into consideration.
- Is the property inhabited? If so, it’s best to move on.
- Are there no trespassing signs? That’s a clear indication that visitors are not welcome, and you better move on.
- Is there a locked gate? Even if there aren’t any “No Trespassing” signs, it’s best to stay on the right side of the fence.
- Is the gate broke, tossed to the side, pulled down? If you find a gate pulled down, that’s a good hint that the owners don’t want visitors, and previous guests have destroyed the barrier.
In all of these instances, I will turn around, move along, and find an alternate route. There is nothing that justifies trespassing on private land, which the owner obviously does not want visitors. You should always assume that private property is off-limits. Don’t ever plan to visit privately owned land and find detours ahead of time. If private land is in your way, it’s as easy as sending a letter to the landowner to get permission to pass through.
We should be proud that we have abundant access to public lands.
Access to vast areas of public lands is sometimes dependent on landowners. Many popular 4×4 trails cross private property. Some of these trails include Crown King, Box Canyon Wickenburg, and several others. These trails are subject to closure without notice, public input, or reason. If access is not respected, a landowner may close the gate and lock it for good.
Some folks believe that historic laws such as RS 2477 give the public the right to cross private property on an existing road. This is not true. RS 2477 allowed settlers to build roads “over public lands, not reserved for public use.” In other words, you could not construct a road over someone else’s patent claim. Thus, no easements were permitted.
In some cases, easements are constructed over private land. Particularly, lands that have been liquidated by the state trust and federal government after 1976 contain easements. Usually, state, county, and city roads utilize public easements to cross private land and are typically nicely maintained. These easements are open to public travel.
Access can change with ownership.
When private land changes owners, access may change along with it. New owners may decide to develop the land, lock the gate or do whatever they want. Therefore, some of your favorite backroads could be locked one day, and there is nothing you can do about it.
We must remember this is America. Private ownership is a fundamental aspect of American freedom. To violate your fellow Americans’ 5th amendment is tyrannical at best. I’m sure you wouldn’t like it if someone walked into your house and parked their butt on your couch. Or stop by your house unannounced to rummage through your tool shed. We must understand that when a landowner locks the gate, it’s his fundamental right as an American. They lock gates for the same reason you lock your front door.
All the more reason to have Proper Etiquette on private lands too.
Respect granted access to private property or ruin it for all.
Forest Road 711, also known as the back road to Crown King, is a great example. The trail passes through an active, privately owned, patented mining claim. The property has been privately owned since the mid-1800s. The caretaker of the property receives threats and harassment almost every weekend while he allows hundreds of 4×4 vehicles to pass through his property.
Imagine if you will. On a busy weekend, 300 to 400 Motorcycles, UTV, ATV, and other 4WD vehicles pass right through your property. Then, more than half of those vehicles come back. Within 12 hours, the caretaker will see an estimated 1.2 off-road vehicles every minute. I think it’s crucial to prize the stomach this man has for the offroad community.
Years ago, the caretaker closed the original trail and rerouted traffic through Humbug Creek to keep the public out of his mining operation. Shortly after, a pile of rocks fell in the river, making the road impassable. The landowner later cleared the road but that didn’t stop a neverending battle between 4×4 enthusiasts and the caretaker. Ever since he has gotten nothing but hate for his continued generosity. The animosity towards him is unreasonable, unjustified, and downright ignorant.
If you are scared of a few rocks and a river, you should probably stay home. The Crown King backroad is not a drive to the grocery store. It’s a primitive, unmaintained, 4×4 trail that is meant to be challenging, and like all trails, conditions can change overnight.
The trail still travels through the property, and there is no detour. The caretaker of the property fully understands the impact on the small town of Crown King if he decided to close the trail for good. The fate of the Crown King trail relies on his private decision to keep it open. Without him, the famous Crown King trail would be a dead-end, and Crown King would be nothing more than a ghost town. Shake his hand, hug him, and bring him a pork loin… He loves pork loin!
When the landowner closes the gate, it stirs up some problems.
The Coke Ovens near Florence have been a popular destination for decades. It’s published in books and several online publications. It’s located on private property, and visitors have always been allowed until recently. Over the past few years, several acts of vandalism have destroyed the ovens. Bricks have been removed, fences are pulled down, signs disappear, and now one oven has collapsed.
The landowner and caretaker have been generous for a long time. To preserve the historic charcoal ovens, visitors are no longer allowed. Over 100 no trespassing signs are posted all over the property. The caretaker receives threats every week. Trespassers arrive drunk, belligerent, and looking for problems. When asked to leave, some comply, and others refuse.
Now the landowner has had enough and is looking to sell the property. The local governments and environmental groups are advocating for federal acquisition and protection of the property through the Bureau of Land Management. We believe this is the wrong decision and will make the historical ovens more receptive to the public, thus acquiring even more visitors and damage.
Tip Top Mine
The Tip Top Mine is another example of a private landowner who had enough. The Tip Top mine is also published in several online and print publications. It’s one of several places that 4×4 enthusiasts used to visit on a daily basis. There are several remains of the massive mining operation that was active in the early days. However, recent issues have forced the landowner to close the property to the public for good.
Besides the fact that the mine is reopened; vandalism has occurred, old wood has been stolen, and his cattle were being shot. The owner rightfully decided to close the attraction to the public for good. To this day, despite the No Trespassing signs and heavy gate, visitors still arrive and walk right in like they own the place.
This should be a lesson learned for everyone. When the landowner has had enough, the experience can be ruined for all. We should be thankful that we have such wide-open public lands. The disrespect towards property owners is not justifiable when there are hundreds of thousands of square miles to enjoy. As long as these problems keep happening, we will lose more and more access to public lands if private property is not respected. We must respect private land and save the opportunity for the next person.
It all boils down to common courtesy for the next man. If you see a no trespassing sign, stay out! Trespassing could land you in jail with hefty fines. Making threats could get you shot. Because let’s face it, this is still the wild west. It’s not smart to threaten someone who spends every day of their life surviving the harshest environment in America.