A new gate that was placed this fall on Hughes Creek Road in Ravalli County. The gate has 10 signs posted on it (Courtesy PLWA).
Two court rulings, two gates and years of fighting appeared to be coming to a close this December when Ravalli County officials told property owners living near Hughes Creek Road that a gate blocking the county road would need to be removed or officials there would remove it.
The landowners, which for decades have disputed the county’s ownership and right-of-way even though two Supreme Court rulings have said it’s public, agreed to move the gate – along with its nine menacing signs.
Where the gate once stood, now a large excavator sits blocking the same road, with property owners continuing to believe the road belongs to them, and telling Perry Backus of the Ravalli Republic they may start mining – right there on the road.
Despite the court rulings and what would be possible destruction of public property, a check with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality shows an active small mining permit for one of the landowners along the Hughes Creek, making some mining in the area a possibility.
A small mining permit generally allows the removal of as many as five acres of material without needing other permits by the Department of Environmental Quality. However, just holding a permit, the department said, doesn’t give a person the right to mine anywhere or engage in any type of activity.
The road is also the subject of a protracted three-sided legal battle among the county, the landowners and the public lands group, Public Lands and Water Access Association, which has filed and won lawsuits for access, only to be rebuffed by landowners who keep blocking the road and county officials frustrated by the ongoing controversy.
The Montana Supreme Court and the county have proven the road, which was built more than 120 years ago, was built by taxpayer funds and meant to support logging and mining activities originally. Now, the road is part of the only access to U.S. Forest Service land in Ravalli County.
Ravalli County Commissioner Greg Chilcott said the county also thought it had finished with the issue when the property owners removed the fence. He, too, said he’s equally chagrined at the appearance of the excavator, a piece of heavy machinery. He said that now the county has to figure out how to remove the large piece of equipment from the remote land on wintry roads.
One other complication: The excavator appears to be disabled, so Chilcott said the county may need a mechanic, too.
“The land owners told us it’s broken down,” Chilcott said.
He said the owners’ reaction is in some ways understandable.
“You know the history of Ravalli County is pro-property rights. They’re frustrated, and we’re frustrated and it’s throwing problems into the mix and getting into the way of solutions,” Chilcott said. “The landowners want this to be a political decision and a local one. The citizens have elected us to represent them. But we often have to follow the law when it doesn’t mesh with our personal position, and we do it all the time.”
Drewry Hanes, the executive director of the Public Land and Water Access Association, said that it’s frustrating that county officials will not value public ownership as much as they value private landowner rights.
“Why are public land rights any different?” Hanes asked.
In addition to battles of gates and excavators, PWLA and the county remain engaged in a lawsuit about the access, which Ravalli County has moved to dismiss. Hanes said her organization won’t drop the lawsuit until public access is restored.
Hanes faults the county for letting the issue linger for months, if not years. She said the county has tools to force compliance, including removing the property or issuing fines, especially after the lawsuit. To date, the county has not issued fines.
“Why would we dismiss the lawsuit while the road is still closed,” Hanes said. “It’s taken them six months to address a gate and even then they refused to tell us what they were going to do about it. We have public servants who have been elected to uphold the law, and the law has spoken multiple times and yet they refuse to act when owners intentionally are blocking public lands.”
She said she understands that the county is pro-private property rights, and that’s why the situation is even more frustrating to her.
“You know if someone called them because the public was trespassing on private property they’d be up there immediately, so why won’t they enforce the public’s ownership when private parties block it?” Hanes questioned.
For his part, Chilcott said the Hughes Creek access is a distraction from more important issues facing the county like dealing with COVID-19.
“Public access is at best marginal, but it’s sort of a hill to die on for public land and access folks,” Chilcott said. “I think you can make a case to find a better place to provide real access.”
Hanes said that one of the reasons the backwoods trails may be in poor condition is because the U.S. Forest Service also has not gotten access to the lands to maintain the trails for decades.
“That doesn’t mean if they get back there and clear it that great access can’t be restored,” Hanes said.
Meanwhile the commissioner said the county must be careful about damaging private property in the name of public access.
“The PLWA has been an impediment dedicated their resources to this frivolous suit. They have not done anything to help make this situation go away,” Chilcott said.
While Chilcott accuses the public access group of inflaming a local situation and pushing a political agenda, the PWLA said the commissioners and officials won’t even do the job they’re paid to do.
“So, you can win in district court and the Supreme Court and still at the end of the day, people don’t have to abide by it. That’s not good news,” Hanes said. “I wish in Montana we had stronger enforcement of the public’s right to their land and water instead of relying on public servants. I think it shows us that we’re at risk for losing it.”
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