Mabee Road Access Update: February 2019

The Mabee Road in Fergus County has served as a major public access route into the remote Upper Missouri River Breaks for more than 100 years. It runs north out of Roy for many miles until it intersects with the Knox Ridge Road in the heart of the Breaks country (Fergus County Map).

There is a well-documented history of long-standing public use of the Mabee Road in historical records dating back to the early 1900’s.

That historic public access ended in the fall of 2007 when a local landowner and outfitter installed a locked gate across the Mabee Road where it crosses through his property north of Roy. He posted no-trespassing signs, cutting off access to approximately 10,000 acres of public lands in the Breaks, including expansive prime elk habitat and hunting areas.

Two local hunters were denied access to their treasured public lands hunting grounds. They asked PLWA for assistance in reopening the Mabee Road. PLWA compiled substantial evidence validating the public status of the Mabee Road, and presented this evidence to the Fergus County Commissioners in January 2008. Despite our efforts, the Fergus County Attorney issued an opinion that the segment of road in dispute was private in 2010.

In November 2012, after exhausting other efforts to reopen the blocked portion of Mabee Road to public use, PLWA filed legal action in state district court to obtain a judicial ruling on the public status of the Mabee Road. That legal action culminated in a September 2018 trial held in Lewistown before District Judge Brenda Gilbert. PLWA’s attorneys and public access experts provided a thorough and convincing case that the Mabee is a public road. The testimony of local folks who used the Mabee Road over decades for hunting and other recreational pursuits greatly helped PLWA’s case.

In January 2019, attorneys for both sides provided their Proposed Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order to Judge Gilbert. The PLWA Proposed Findings, Conclusions, and Order offer an excellent summary of the factual and legal basis of our case. We now await the Court’s decision.

PLEASE NOTE: the Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law linked here are not the actual order from the Court. Both parties file these documents to help the Court reach its decision. We here at PLWA wanted to publish this update because we want to share our hard work on this case. We also wanted to provide more information because we have been getting questions from our members about the status of Mabee Road. The answer is that we are still waiting on the Court’s decision and that we don’t know exactly when the ruling will come out. We will, of course, let everyone know the result of the trial as soon as we do!

For more info, please check out PLWA member Don Thomas’s article in the August 2018 issue of Outside Bozeman, which summarizes the importance of the Mabee Road case:

While PLWA is largely a hunter- and angler-driven organization, the resources at risk include more than fish and game. The public lands from which the public could be excluded are rich in history, scenery, and non-game wildlife. And every time a private party illegally blocks access to public land and water, a dangerous precedent becomes established that could help perpetuate similar losses of more public resources in the future, closer to home.

As has so often been the case in the long, complex history of American law involving wildlife and public land, hunters and anglers have again taken the lead in the fight for rights that benefit all citizens who care about the outdoors. Some of those fights have involved big, sexy issues ranging from Yellowstone Park to migratory birds. This one involves a small back road across a lonely stretch of prairie most Americans will never see. But it still should matter to all of us, because the land beyond the gate belongs to all of us. We all should be able to reach it.

Thanks for all the support for protecting our public lands. We couldn’t do it without you.

Mabee Road
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Public Land/Water Access Association Inc. or PLWA,
is a citizen group organized and operated under the Montana nonprofit corporation act.
The Internal Revenue Service has made a determination that PLWA qualifies as a tax- exempt
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Articles and Information on this site represent the opinion of the writer and are not intended as legal advice.
Legal counsel may be needed in dealing with specific access situations and issues.