FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Sporting and Access Groups Across the State Celebrate Win on Hughes Creek Road in Bitterroot Valley
In a big win for public access to public lands, the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Department took down an illegal gate this week on a road leading to the Bitterroot National Forest that has been blocked for decades.
“After over a decade of work which resulted in two state Supreme Court rulings finding that the Hughes Creek Road is a public route that is open to public use, we are glad that the county has made the right decision and returned this important public access to the public’s hands,” said Drew Hanes, executive director of the Public Land and Water Access Association. “While it shouldn’t have taken this long, this is an important win, as we have finally restored an access point to the Bitterroot National Forest.”
PLWA joined the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association this month in sending a letter to Gov. Greg Gianforte and Attorney General Austin Knudsen urging them to push Ravalli County commissioners to remove the gate.
“Hunters have worked for over a decade to get this road opened,” said Tony Jones, president of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association. “This opens a new area for us to get out hunting, but also an access point for all Montanans or people who come here to enjoy the outdoors.
“It’s been long overdue and we’re glad to have an access win.”
PLWA President Bernard Lea commented, “Like almost all of our access issues, public access triumphs in the end. But it takes patience, persistence, and having the facts on your side.”
The gate at Hughes Creek in Ravalli County has blocked access to public lands on a county road for over 40 years. An abundance of factual evidence and multiple court rulings verified the illegality of this gate blocking public access, and yet the gate remained.
Since 2016, PLWA, in partnership with the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association and legal assistance from the Goetz law firm, worked together to compel the Ravalli County Commission to fulfill their legal obligation to remove the gate. Gate removal seemed guaranteed in 2019 following two Montana Supreme Court decisions upholding that the Hughes Creek Road was a public highway and that the gate illegally blocked public access. Despite these Supreme Court rulings, the Ravalli County Commission waffled on its position regarding gate removal and failed to act to remove the gate.
PLWA and the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association made the decision to work with PLWA’s legal team at the Goetz Law firm on next steps to obtain gate removal in 2020. The first of those next steps entailed an October legal request in the form of a letter from the legal team to the Ravalli County Commissioners to remove the illegal gate without further delay. That letter summarized the factual record and multiple court rulings recognizing the public status of the Hughes Creek Road. It also indicated the next recourse PLWA and the Association would take if the Commission failed to fulfill its legal obligation to remove the gate. When no response was received from the Commission, Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife and PLWA made the decision in January 2021 to write a letter to Governor Greg Gianforte and Attorney General Knudsen, appealing to them to intercede on behalf of the public interest, and see that the court orders were enforced. Less than one week later, the gate was removed.
Drew Hanes, Exeutive Director, Public Land/Water Access Association 406-690-0960
Tony Jones, President, Ravalli County Fish & Wildlife Association, 406-381-0587
Nick Gevock, Conservation Director, Montana Wildlife Federation, 406-533-9432