[SUNDAY FEATURE] Class war in the West: rich landowners blocking access to public lands

Montana is no longer a secret, as evidenced by a steady influx of new residents. :Photograph- Matt Anderson / Photography:Getty Images

By Kathleen McLaughlin | The Guardian

Public land access over private land has always been a fairly fraught issue, but with the West growing more crowded, it has taken on a new urgency.

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.

By all accounts, this was a little community positioned just right for fishing, hunting, hiking in some of Montana’s wilder mountain spaces.

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 in spite of 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.


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