A bench trial in Federal District Court in Missoula has been scheduled for March 16, 2020 in a lawsuit filed by two landowners along Robbins Gulch Road seeking to close the road to public traffic. The road is located east of Hwy 93 south of Conner Cutoff and accesses Forest Service land beyond the private properties that it traverses.
In their lawsuit, Larry Wilkins, who owns a 9.8-acre parcel and Jane Stanton, who owns a 12.43-acre parcel, “object to the current and ongoing excessive use of the Robbins Gulch Road by a wide range of parties, and the failure of the U.S. Forest Service to manage, patrol, and maintain this road in accordance with the intended limited use of the road for U.S. Forest Service administrative purposes.”
The 1962 easement for the Robbins Gulch Road was granted by the predecessors in title of Mr. Wilkins and Ms. Stanton through two conveyances dated April 30, 1962 and May 11, 1962, to the United States.
The landowners claim that in recent years, the Forest Service’s management of the road has enabled the road to be utilized for general public access purposes and encouraged public use with signs such that the use of the road has become excessive and disruptive to the Plaintiffs’ enjoyment of their private property. They claim the increasing excessive use of the Robbins Gulch Road has caused serious traffic hazards, road damage, fire threats, noise, and enabled a wide range of people – some known and many unknown – to access the road and engage in misconduct, trespassing, illegal hunting, speeding and disrespectful activities often aimed at the Plaintiffs and other neighboring owners of private lands traversed by the road.
The landowners claim that the 1962 easement was granted “expressly to the ‘United States of America,’ as a sovereign governmental entity, not all unspecified citizens and residents of the United States of America. In their view, the plain text of the 1962 easement contemplated that the Robbins Gulch Road was to be used solely by agents of the United States and assigned representatives, such as timber contractors, but this text contemplated that there would be actual assignments from the Forest Service to those assignees who were entitled to make use of this easement held by the United States.”
A letter was sent to the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of General Counsel on May 14, 2018, asserting these claims.
On July 12, 2018, Alan Campbell of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of the General Counsel, responded on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service, stating, in part:
“The easement is granted in general and unlimited terms for a road to be ‘operated’ by the Forest Service. Where the National Forest lands are open to the public the Forest Service may allow the public to utilize the easement for ingress and egress to the National Forest as an implied licensee of the agency without the need for recitation in the easement of this use. [Emphasis added.]
According to documents filed in the case, on August 9, 2018, Campbell, on a conference call with Forest Supervisor Julie King and District Ranger Eric Winthers, orally asserted to Wilkins and his counsel that the U.S. Forest Service would not change their position that the Robbins Gulch Road would be open to the general public, notwithstanding the 1962 easement text and associated documentation of the limited purpose of the 1962 easement.
In the latest filings in the case, both parties have stipulated that the applicable laws in the case are under the Quiet Title Act. The case is being heard by Missoula Federal District Court Judge Dana Christensen and a schedule for the case has been issued. The lawsuit was filed on August 23, 2018 and trial is set for March 16, 2020.
The Forest Service has also made a few affirmative defenses, including that the Plaintiffs lack standing to bring the claims; that the claims are blocked by the statute of limitations; and that the court lacks jurisdiction over the claims.
According to FWP officials, Robbins Gulch Road is used by hunters to access hunting areas, mostly for mule deer, on the U.S. Forest Service land located beyond the private landholdings.
In compliance with the Forest Service Travel Plan, the road is regularly closed to access at the private property line from December 1 to June 15.