by Michael Howell
Public Land Water Access Association (PLWA) has taken action in District Court to force the Ravalli County Commissioners to take down a locked gate on Hughes Creek Road up the West Fork. The non-profit organization warned the County Commissioners in a letter last September that if the Board did not take any action to remove the obstruction by October 16, they would assume that the county was not going to act. The organization emphasized in its letter that the law actually requires the county to remove any obstacle blocking a public road “immediately.” They are not waiting any longer. The complaint for declaratory judgement & petition for alternative writ of mandamus was filed on October 22, in the Montana Twenty First Judicial District Court.
“This step was taken as a last resort after months of efforts to work with the County to get Hughes Creek Road opened, a road that has been twice declared legally public by the State of Montana,” it states on the group’s web site. “By any stretch of the imagination, immediately certainly means less than three months.”
The County Commissioners have twice taken down a gate on Hughes Creek Road under pressure from the organization this summer. The latest gate is in a slightly different location and on property with different ownership than the previous gates. The county claimed that the new conditions warranted a review of the situation and that they were working towards the removal of the gate but refused to say what they were doing in that regard or when it would be accomplished.
“PLWA believes firmly in the obligation of officials to serve the public and protect access to our public lands and waters, treating private and public land rights equally,” the group states. “In the time since our letter requesting that the gate and obstructions be removed… numerous additional signs have been added to the gate, the gate and obstructions have not been removed, and County officials have stated that they do not see why this is a matter of public interest at all.” They point out that the National Forest trail that lies beyond the locked gate leads to the Bitterroot National Forest, the Salmon National Forest, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, and thousands of acres of recreation.
“Montanans deserve access to their public lands and waters, and for their public officials to enforce laws and protect our rights. We await corrective action by the County,” state the plaintiffs in the case.
Even though the Montana Supreme Court has made two rulings indicating it is a public road and the gate needs to come down, landowners behind the gate insist that the courts have gotten it wrong in the case and believe they should take another look. At least one of the signs warns that you might get shot if you violate the prohibition and they will see you in court later.
County Commissioner Dan Huls, asked for comment on the case, said, “We are working on working through it, we are just not as fast as they want us to be, I think.” He said it’s been going on for a long time, since 1977, and nobody’s been able to solve it and called it a” continuing conundrum.”
“I’m very concerned about public access and private property rights and they are both involved here,” he said. He insisted that they were working on a solution and if given more time might get something resolved. He also said the gate had been moved and he wasn’t sure if it was on private land or half public or what.
“Our legal council did their best to put them off. We were hoping for more time,” he said.