After decades of Public Exclusion, Hughes Creek Road Victory
For over 30 years, the residents of Hughes Creek County Road, in Ravalli County, have enjoyed exclusive access to thousands of acres of our public lands. That just ended on January 25, 2017.
The Ravalli County Commission voted to reject a landowner petition to abandon a portion of Hughes Creek County Road. Following the majority vote, on January 25, 2017, to reject the petition, the Ravalli Commissioners finally had to deal with the illegal gate that had obstructed the public from their lands, which previous commissions has simply ignored, in what was described as a “kicking the can down the road” situation.
The grueling meeting lasted about 4 ½ hours, hearing landowners desperately try to claim their right to privatization, with one landowner sharing how his young daughter has grown up on these lands, portrayed as a mountain goat, an opportunity the public has been denied.
Public lands advocates who succinctly and specifically advocated for the public’s rights and the law were: Dave Campbell, retired USFS District Ranger from that area; Jim Olson for Ravalli County Fish & Wildlife, also a PLWA member; USFS District Ranger Ryan Domsalla and PLWA attorney, Kyle Nelson, from the Goetz, Baldwin & Geddes law firm.
Like a wrestling tag team, each member calmly hammered the facts and law before the reluctant county commissioners who seemed unaware of the “legal significance of a public highway created by statutory petition”, as well as it’s 60-foot right-of-way as a matter of law. The Hughes Creek Road beyond the illegal gate “meanders into public land at several locations, and with the 60-foot right-of-way it stretches into public land (and potentially waters) at several other locations”.
Campbell stated this was not denying access to Forest Service property, it was denying access to public property, owned by the citizens of the United States. In reference to the fact that the road was not used that much, Olson drove home the fact, “…no use, it’s pretty hard to use a public road that’s got an illegal gate on it”. Ryan Domsalla reiterated that as the stewards of tens of thousands of acres of public’s lands, they had standing in this matter. He then began to list the many historic, as well as current, recreational and commercial activities, currently being denied to the public.
PLWA submitted a number of letters to the Ravalli County Commissioners with no written response. PLWA’s attorney also mailed and called Montana Attorney General, Tim Fox, for intervention, with no response. Under MCA 2-15-501 (5), the MT AG has the authority, ”to exercise supervisory powers over county attorneys in all matters pertaining to the duties of their offices and from time to time require of them reports as to the condition of public business entrusted to their charge. The supervisory powers granted to the attorney general by this subsection include the power to order and direct county attorneys in all matters pertaining to the duties of their office. The county attorney shall, when ordered or directed by the attorney general, promptly institute and diligently prosecute in the proper court and in the name of the state of Montana any criminal or civil action or special proceeding.”
The Ravalli County Commissioners, preferring not to deny the private landowners petition for abandonment, were forced to abide by the law. In a split vote, 3 to 2, the Commissioners denied the abandonment petition.
Since Hughes Creek Road is a public access county road, the Commissioners then had to deal with the illegal gate that has blocked public access for about 30 years. After some debate, PLWA Attorney Kyle Nelson again took to the podium to point out the law, MCA 7-14-2135, pointing out that the statute clearly stated the “Notice to remove the encroachment” was “immediately”. Nelson added, “I think it is reasonable to give the landowners some time to sort out the kind of windy nature of the private-public land intersection.” Despite the law, the Ravalli County Commissioners unanimously voted to give the landowners 120 days to prepare and post signage on private property.
Upon hearing of the Hughes Creek Road victory, PLWA President John Gibson declared, “To all involved in the Hughes Creek Case, Good Work! I hope this is a lesson to all others who would block county roads or public highways. We will get behind any group that has a legitimate claim that a dedicated public road is blocked. PLWA’s role will be to alert the local road authority that they have allowed a violation of state law to occur on the land under their jurisdiction.This will be after we have confirmed thru our legal experts that the road or trail in question is, indeed, public. If that is not sufficient, PLWA will consider further action, including legal options.”
PLWA would like to thank Kyle Nelson, from the Goetz, Baldwin & Geddes law firm; Dave Campbell, retired USFS District Ranger and current USFS District Ranger Ryan Domsalla; Jim Olson from the Ravalli County Fish & Wildlife, and the other members of the public who stood up for the statutory law and public access to our public lands involving Hughes Creek County Road.