by Michael Howell, Bitterroot Star
“On Wednesday, January 25, after a few hours of discussion, the Ravalli County Commissioners denied a petition to abandon the upper reaches of Hughes Creek Road and ordered the landowners to take down the gate that has blocked the road for the last 40 years. Although a Viewers Report recommended accepting the petition and two commissioners voted in favor of accepting it, the remaining three voted against the petition, primarily based on the determination that the portion being petitioned for abandonment was a public road that accessed public land. According to Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht, state law prohibits the county from closing a public road that accesses public land or public water unless there is an alternative route that provides ‘substantially the same access’ as the road being abandoned.
There was much public comment pro and con and a handful of attorneys offered varying opinions. Recht presented a brief history of the road, saying that it was first adopted as a county road in 1900 and extended east from the Alta Post Office 12 miles up Hughes Creek to the Woods Place Mining Company claims. Recht said it was adopted as a state highway and thus has a sixty-foot easement associated with it.
In 1978, however, a gate was installed about eight and a half miles up blocking off public access to the upper portion. It is landowners now living above that locked gate who are seeking the abandonment. Recht said that a petition to abandon the upper reaches of the road was made in 1982. He said that petition was denied and the landowners were ordered to open the gate. When the gate didn’t come down the commissioners took the matter to court. Recht said it ‘languished’ for ten years with no action before finally being dismissed without prejudice.
Some of the landowners argued that there was no true access to the trailhead from the road and the only other access it might provide, where it traverses Forest Service property, was very narrow and would not provide any parking and only accessed a very steep hillside with no trail.
The latest effort to open the gate, which led to the filing of the petition by the landowners, was spearheaded by former Forest Service Supervisor Dave Campbell. The Forest Service submitted evidence and a letter claiming that, in their analysis, the gate was illegal and should be taken down. The Forest Service supported the fact that the upper reaches of the road did provide public access to about 10,000 acres of forest and that there was no alternative access that provided ‘substantially the same access.’ ”