Tenderfoot Creek is a tributary of the Smith River, joining the Smith a mile or so north of Camp Baker. The road is an established county road and a numbered Forest Service road, dating all the way back to 1899. Despite the long public access history of this road, when rancher Howard Zehntner bought the surrounding land, he gated the road and erected a “Road Closed” sign. This Tenderfoot Road provided public access to some 8,000 acres of a prime habitat project being preserved by The Bair Ranch Foundation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Tenderfoot Trust, and the Forest Service.
This road closure came to PLWAs attention in September 2011, and after extensive investigation the issue came before the Meagher County commissioners the following May 2012. When the Commissioners sided with private interests against the public, and Zehntner erected a new gate, the State of Montana, through the Attorney Generals office, filed action in district court in October 2012, requesting the Court acknowledge evidence of public access.
The following year, after an initial presentation of supporting historical records and witness testimony, the Court ordered the gate opened and enjoined the ranch from blocking access until a final decision was issued. When attempts to mediate the dispute were unsuccessful, defendant Zehntner filed a motion for summary judgment in August 2014, arguing there was no material evidence supporting public access, that the road was private, and further proceedings were unnecessary. The State argued that if the evidence was already sufficient, it supported public access.
As of September 2015, four years into the investigation and three years after the case was filed, we await the courts ruling. The Court can find sufficient evidence has already been presented and find in favor of either party, or it can order a full hearing on the matter. Given the importance of public access, and the considerable statewide and nation attention given the issue, it is understandable that the most careful consideration of all the facts be given the case.