Cave Falls is on the Falls River in the extreme southwest corner of Yellowstone Park. (Harry Bryan/National Park Service)
It’s called the “zone of death,” a 50 square-mile section of Yellowstone National Park adorned with meadows and waterfalls — home to grizzly bears but no people — tucked inconspicuously within Idaho.
Supposedly, according to the 2005 Georgetown Law Journal article “The Perfect Crime,” it’s a place where a poorly worded law and a constitutional problem collide, creating a place “where one might commit felonies with impunity,” Michigan State University law professor Brian C. Kalt wrote in the law journal article.
The whole thing sounds a little bit like it could be the plot of an episode of the television series “Yellowstone,” but an Idaho legislator is asking Congress to get involved in real life and close the alleged legal loophole.
The issue has to do with the fact that nobody lives within that 50 square-mile section of Yellowstone located in Idaho, according to the 2020 census. The fact nobody lives there could become a problem if a criminal defendant on trial for, say, a murder or kidnapping that took place in that precise area, evoked their Sixth Amendment right to be tried in front of a jury from the state and district where the crime occurred.
“So under the legal theory, if there is no one that lives in that state and district in this 50 square-mile swath of Yellowstone Park, there would be no constitutionally legitimate jury to be seated so that person could be tried,” Nash told members of the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee on Thursday afternoon.
“So what this joint memorial does is it says, ‘Congress, fix this legal loophole that exists, put this 50 square-mile section of Yellowstone National Park into the federal judicial district of the state of Idaho so that we maintain jurisdiction and can seat a constitutionally legitimate jury to try people who may commit crimes in that swath of Yellowstone Park,’” Nash added.
Most of Yellowstone National Park is located in Wyoming, but some of the park spills into Montana and Idaho.
Responding to a question from Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, Nash said people can be tried and convicted for state crimes committed in that section of Yellowstone, but not federal crimes.
“But, to my knowledge, no crimes have been committed that I am aware of and gone unprosecuted,” Nash said.
Nash, a lawyer by trade, said he first heard of the issue in law school.
Yellowstone’s ‘zone of death’ issue came up in Gabby Petito case
The Yellowstone “zone of death” issue recently gained traction in tabloid news articles and among online armchair detectives captivated by the 2021 disappearance of Gabby Petito, whose body was ultimately recovered near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
“I read this in law school, and it pops up every now and then,” Nash said. “Every time there is a high profile disappearance in that area I think about this, and there were two last year, so that’s what brought it up again.”
To be sure, there were some smiles and laughs during Thursday’s hearing over the zone of death.
“If you remember from the print hearing, House Joint Memorial 3 is in regards to the zone of death, which is a legal theory, not a conspiracy theory, Rep. Amador,” Nash said during the hearing, sharing a laugh with Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene.
And it’s not clear Congress will take the request seriously.
“I’m just curious, do you think that if we reach out to Congress to do this, do you think they will actually do it?” Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, asked Nash.
Nash hesitated, and then smiled when he gave McCrostie the answer.
“We can try our darndest,” Nash said.
House Joint Memorial 3 heads next to the House floor with a recommendation it passes. The proposal is being run as a joint memorial and would not have the force law if the Idaho Legislature adopts it. Instead, it’s intended to raise awareness about the issue and spur Congress into taking action at the federal level.
Visit Yellowstone’s zone of death for yourself
Unlike the major entrances to Yellowstone National Park, cars and motorized vehicles aren’t allowed into the southwest section of the park that is located in Idaho. Instead, visitors can park and stay at the Cave Falls Campground (first-come, first-served) just outside of the park’s border, or park in the parking area at Cave Falls itself. Beyond the parking area, visitors must hike into the park or ride on horseback as no motorized vehicles are allowed.
To get to Cave Falls Campground, take Idaho Highway 47 east through the town of Ashton, Idaho, and follow it for 5.7 miles, before turning right on East 1400 North/ Cave Falls Road. Follow that road for 17.6 miles to signs for the campground.
This story was written and produced by the Idaho Capital Sun which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus, including the Daily Montanan, supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.
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