AG files suit on Tenderfoot road
PLWA President John Gibson calls attention to the action of Attorney General Steve Bullock to file a civil complaint against the landowner who placed locked gates across the South fork of Tenderfoot County Road in Meagher County. He has asked the court for an injunction to keep the road opened during the legal proceedings. Gibson said “Attorney General, Steve Bullock has brought the A.G.’s office into a road access issue for the first time in the thirty years that I have been involved in access issues. PLWA has always been on our own up to now.”
The October 14 item from the Great Falls Tribune quoted below tells the story :
Bullock files lawsuit over Tenderfoot access dispute
Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock has filed a lawsuit in district court to ensure what he says is the public’s right of access to Lewis and Clark National Forest via Tenderfoot Road near White Sulphur Springs in Meagher County.
Documents filed with the court Friday show that Tenderfoot Road was petitioned and accepted as a county road in 1900, and that the public has used that road to access thousands of acres of state, public and private land in the Tenderfoot Creek drainage for more than a century.
Jennifer Anders, an assistant attorney general, said land owner Howard Zehntner originally erected a gate across a county road adjacent to state trust land on which he has a grazing lease. About six months ago, the office negotiated with him through Meagher County officials to reopen the road. The gate was opened but Anders said Zehntner recently erected a new gate adjacent to his private land a few miles up the road from the original gate, prompting the lawsuit.
No matter who owns the land, Anders said, a private landowner can’t block a public road. She said the new gate is a barbed wire gate that’s pulled across a road and has a lock on it.
According to the state’s brief, Tenderfoot Road is “a public road that has provided homestead access and access for fishing, hunting and other recreational activities in the Tenderfoot Creek drainage for generations.” Trails at the end of Tenderfoot Creek provide motorized and non-motorized access to thousands of acres of public land, including a point overlooking the Smith River canyon and two popular National Forest System trails, Tenderfoot Creek Trail No. 342 and Bald Hills Trail No. 345.
“Access to wild lands, rivers and streams is part of who we are as Montanans and, when in conflict, should be decided by our courts, not one individual. As Montanans, we appreciate concern for private property rights, but state law makes it clear that public access to thousands of acres of public lands that have been used by hunters for generations can’t be controlled by a private landowner,” Bullock said in a statement.
In addition, the state alleges, the locked gate is hampering the work of the Tenderfoot acquisition project, a joint effort by the Forest Service, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Tenderfoot Trust, a volunteer group, Bullock said. These groups are working together to acquire lands owned by the Bair Ranch Foundation in an effort to consolidate ownership of checkerboard lands in the Tenderfoot Creek area.
To date, 1,920 acres have been purchased in the area for $2.4 million.
Bullock’s lawsuit asks the court to order the landowner to remove the gate and to prevent him from otherwise interfering with the public’s right of access. It asks a judge to order the gate removed while the issue is litigated. Anders noted that hunting season begins this weekend.
On July 16 2013, the Judge signed a scheduling conference order in anticipation of a hearing on August 16,2013.