28b: Willard Interrupted

12 Sep 2023: 3.5 miles, 1.5 miles unofficial BST. Trailforks Hike Log.

For our first hike in Box Elder County (ever!), we planned on traversing from Willard Canyon to Perry Canyon. Yes, we skipped ahead a bit for scheduling reasons. The large gravel pits have made the high bench inaccessible (and mostly gone), so we began by following the Ogden & Brigham Canal road. It’s not the same character as other parts of the BST, but it is easy, open, and still had great views.

Someone has put in a nice if faint path crossing the mouth of Willard Canyon, where the canal goes through a siphon with no parallel road. Making it part of the official BST would require a lot of improvement, though.

This was a good place to discuss the laws governing recreation access private property in Utah. I’m no lawyer, and the Utah trails community could use a good lawyer or two to clarify how the relationship between trail users and land owners works. However, here is a nutshell:

  • Of course, if you enter property when the owner has made it clear that they do not want you there (i.e., fences, “no trespassing” signs, talking to the owner), it is criminal and civil trespassing under Utah Code 76-6-206, with a punishment of at least fines. Cutting fences incurs further penalty.
  • If the property is not marked or posted, then trespassing laws do not apply and it is essentially open to the public (but please don’t do something that makes the owner post it!). That said, if you cause any damage to the property at all, including vandalism or building new trails, then you are liable for trespassing under Utah Code 76-6-206.
  • Even if it is not posted, cities and other agencies cannot officially designate trails through private property without the permission of the owner, as this would constitute Eminent Domain, which is specifically banned for trails in Utah Code 78B-6-501-3-b (see Episode 3 for the back story of this law).
  • If a land owner allows public recreational access (whether signed or not marked at all), they are indemnified, meaning that they are not liable for any damage the user incurs, according to Utah Code 57-14-2-1. For example, if you are riding your bike across private property, and you crash and break your arm and the bike, you cannot sue the land owner for having an unsafe trail.
  • Easements (where a government purchases a formal right of public access along a mapped corridor) are the most permanent way of ensuring access. An alternative option would be convincing the land owner to declare the entire property as a conservation easement under Utah Code 57-18.
  • A “highway” across private property that has been continuously used by the public without restriction for 10 years should automatically be dedicated as a public road (Utah Code 72-5-104-2). This is called a prescriptive easement, but it has not yet been tested in court whether it is applicable to recreational trails.

By sheer coincidence, just after discussing this, we reached a property line just north of the gravel pits that was clearly posted with multiple No Trespassing signs! Although it was a great disappointment to not get all the way to Perry, we followed our standards for trail stewardship, and turned around and headed back to Willard. I’ve marked the gap on our map, and we strongly encourage all users to respect the land owner’s rights by not using this section of trail.

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