Indian Creek Trail Victory
What do you do when out of state landowners file for Quiet Title, exclusive ownership and control of a historic trail that has been used by Native Americans, settlers, US Forest Service, ranchers, loggers, a sawmill, hunters/anglers, outfitters and general recreationists since at least 1888?
As much as PLWA wanted to, they could not have taken the Indian Creek Trail case, they could not even join as an intervenor, it was too late. Thankfully, our US Forest Service defended and secured their, and the public’s prescriptive easement rights, against the owners of the Wonder Ranch, before the United States District Court, in Butte, on October 24, 2016.
The Indian Creek Trail traverses through a number of properties south of Cameron, Montana in Madison County, in the foothills west of the Madison Range. The earliest record of the Trail is an old 1988 Geological Survey map, depicting the Trail exiting Indian Creek Canyon just north of and parallel to Indian Creek, basically where it still is today. Part of the history and documentation provided by the US Forest Service is a Gallatin Forest Reserve map that was published in 1905.
The Trail had a variety of users throughout history. In 1917, homesteader Clarence Althouse built a sawmill along Indian Creek, which ceased in the 1920’s. The USFS built a “wood road” alongside Indian Creek in 1924, which was used to transport logs and cut timber by horse and wagon. Then in 1926, the USFS began utilizing another use, that of grazing allotment permits to two nearby ranchers – the Althouses and Armitages. In 1940, the USFS published the Beaverhead National Forest map, designating the Indian Creek Trail as “Trail #328”, publicizing it as part of the National Forest Trail System, this increased general hunters/anglers, riders and hikers utilization. In 1962, the USFS utilized commercial outfitter permits, who used the Indian Creek Trail for guided hunting trips and horseback rides.
At no time did anyone ask permission to use the trail, including the FS who maintained the trail, it was considered public access.
On February 1, 1968, then landowner, William H. Anderson, sold the Wonder Ranch, one of the properties that Indian Creek Trail crosses, to William H. Hudson from Dallas Texas. Hudson, his wife and 3 children would live there in the summer months, returning to Texas in late August. On March 15, 2000, the Hudson children deeded the property to Wonder Ranch, “an entity controlled by Chris Hudson and Eugenia (Hudson) King”, according to the court document.
In the 1980’s the Forest Service placed signs along the route and constructed a major trailhead facility to serve the Trail. In the early 1990’s the USFS posted a sign at the trailhead – This is Public Access Across Private Land. Please – Stay on the road or trail to the National Forest boundary.
In 1985, the Hudsons installed two wooden signs near the Trail entry reading, Wonder Ranch Private Property Please Stay On Trail To Forest Boundary ¼ MI. Sometime between 2007-2009, the Wonder Ranch installed signs stating, “Access is provided by gratuitous permission of the landowner.” Then in August of 2009, the Wonder Ranch installed unlocked gates on either end of the Trail, as it crosses the ranch. Through 2009 to 2011, the USFS was in communication with the Wonder Ranch concerning the “gratuitous permission signs, requesting the signs be removed, which the Wonder Ranch refused.
Over time, the USFS has sought to secure a written easement for that portion of the Trail, dating back to Arthur H. Roth, one of the owners who purchased the land in 1946. Several different “cash payments were either offered or considered by the USFS and Wonder Ranch property owners” over time, even a negotiation for moving the trail from it’s historical location.
In 2011, the United States Forest Service filed a Statement of Interest with the Madison County Clerk & Recorders office, stating the US “Has and claims an Easement for the Indian Creek Trail No. 328 over and across” the Wonder Ranch.
In 2014, the Wonder Ranch LLC sued the United States for Quiet Title, exclusive ownership and control of the Indian Creek Trail. The trial began on July 27, 2016 before the Honorable Sam E. Haddon. During the trial, Eugenia King and James Hudson both testified that the Indian Creek Trail in the1970’s and the 1980’s saw limited recreational use. Yet, National Forest Trail registers showed as many as 30 recreational users per month from 1969-1970. In fact, a 1972 Wonder Ranch journal entry concerning the Indian Creek Trail states, “busier than the country store today”.
Neither the public, nor the FS, which continued without interruption, to use and maintain the Trail, before and during the Hudson’s ownership of the Wonder Ranch, have ever abandoned their rights to, interest in or use of Indian Creek Trail.
Concerning the prescriptive easement claim, Montana law requires a prescriptive easement be open, notorious, exclusive, adverse, continuous and uninterrupted. The Conclusions of the Law state, “Defendants carried the burden of proving each of these elements by clear and convincing evidence. The Defendants have proven the existence of a prescriptive easement for the Trail.”
Judge Haddon then ordered the USFS to replace the Statement of Interest previously filed with Madison County Clerk and Recorders office with a certified copy of the Final Judgment. Montana law defines the scope and location of the easement, defined and limited to it’s historical uses during the prescriptive easement period – USFS trail maintenance, USFS inspection of hunting camps, hiking, horseback riding and leading strings of pack animals. Another victory for public access.
PLWA President, John Gibson, rejoiced, “This is very good for us, because in the past, PLWA has had to support access to the National Forest. We feel very good about the Indian Creek Trail and the Big Timber Cherry Creek decisions, where the Forest Service has stepped up to defend public access to the land they manage on the National Forest.”
Imagine what would have happened if the out of state Wonder Ranch owners had won their Quiet Title suit?
This is “good news” indeed.