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“Hunting has become big business,” Mr. Herring said. “And people who have leased land for hunting don’t want people who aren’t paying to be on it. As a result, the issue of trespassing has gotten hotter every year.”
Resentment of landowners and commercial hunting has heated up as well.
“If you go back a few decades, it was a lot easier for the public to go knock on the door and get access to private land,” said Mr. Webster of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which has worked with OnX on public lands initiatives. “Generally, the people who owned the land had roots in that community — they went to church together, they went to school together, they grew up together. And if you want to access my place, that’s fine, just let me know — that kind of thing.”
That trust has eroded, in part because of a generational shift away from family farming and ranching. “The owners and their kids don’t want to continue that tradition,” Mr. Webster said, “so they end up selling to a new landowner who maybe isn’t from the area, and who may not have the same feelings about the public on their lands.”
The result — bitter confrontations steeped with class overtones and hinting at larger grievances — is now a staple of the West.
Legislatures have stepped in to resolve the conflicts, largely in favor of landowners and corporate interests seeking to limit public access, while judges have gravitated toward loosening restrictions. For outdoor advocacy groups, the issue can be a public-relations nightmare, since the deep-pocketed donors they court for financial support are often landowners.
Like a corner-crosser, OnX has found itself navigating a narrowly contested space. In 2018, Mr. Siegfried stepped down as chief executive to focus on public land advocacy. At the same time, the company began publishing a stream of “access initiatives” trumpeting the issues of landlocked and corner-locked land.
Laura Orvidas, who took over for Mr. Siegfried as the chief executive of OnX, does not believe that the app facilitates trespassing.