By Tom Puchlerz, Stevensville
For decades, hunters in Ravalli County have been blocked off from reaching our public lands in the Bitterroot National Forest by an illegal gate on Hughes Creek Road. This route has an extensive history that well establishes its status as a county road, going back to records as far as 1898. Yet a handful of people who live along the road put up a gate and blocked off public access to public lands. The same people who gated the road actually filed in the 1980s to have it officially abandoned by the county – their own actions acknowledging that it was an established county road, used by the public to access public land.
Now the Hughes Creek Road is about to re-open, thanks to an eight-year legal campaign by the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association that culminated recently with a Montana Supreme Court ruling that the route is a county road. That was followed up with a letter from the Ravalli County Commission ordering the landowners to take the gate down – or receive a bill from the county when it does the work to restore public access.
Reopening this road a big win for hunters, anglers and all recreationists who want to get to their public lands. But it came at tremendous cost to the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association, and to the hunters who have been deprived of legal access to our public land in this area for decades.
The problem of illegal gates on county roads that lead to public land is not isolated to this case. All too often around Montana, people try to make public lands and waters their own private domains by cutting off legal public roads and blocking legal public stream access.
The problem is that under Montana law, the fine for illegally gating a county road is set at a mere $10 per day. The penalty is a non-deterrent to wealthy special interests that want to block public access, and it provides no incentive for a county attorney’s office to put their time into reopening illegally gated county roads. It’s doubtful that the fine has ever been levied.
Last legislative session, the Montana Wildlife Federation led an effort to pass a bill that would have increased the fine for illegally gating a county road to up to $500 per day, with no minimum. This bill was simple, common-sense, and gave more power to county governments to go after illegal road gates. Despite support from hunters, anglers, and other land users, and bipartisan support in the Legislature, the bill was killed due to some backroom politics by special interest groups.
When the legal record on a road’s status is as clear as Hughes Creek, a letter from the county attorney could resolve many of these cases if the fine has some teeth in it. Simply increasing the penalty to a maximum of $500 per day would help get people to take down illegal gates. And it would give them a strong incentive to work with the authorities to restore public access to legal public routes. We need our lawmakers to quit letting special interests block this common-sense fix to give Montanans access to our public lands and waters.