Another gate has been erected blocking public access on Hughes Creek Road located above Painted Rocks Reservoir on the West Fork. This one is adorned with a “Warning No Trespassing” sign which goes on to state, “You quite possibly could get shot or hurt and then try to sue resulting in a long drawn out court battle. You Will Lose. Because this sign will be ‘Exhibit A’.”
Two non-profit organizations, Public Land and Water Access (PLWA) and Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association (RCFWA) informed the Ravalli County Commissioners about the new gate in a letter dated September 21 and gave the commissioners until October 16th to remove the obstructions. The letter, sent by the Goetz, Baldwin & Geddes law firm in Bozeman, requests that the gate and other obstructions be removed “immediately” as the law requires. The letter states that the commissioners have known about the new obstruction since July 2021.
“Ravalli County has known since July 2021 of the new gate as well as the felled trees obstructing the original roadbed beyond the new illegal gate (pictures enclosed). With all due respect, the two months that has elapsed has been more than enough time to develop a plan, comply with the law and have these obstructions removed.
“If the gate and trees are not removed by October 16, 2021, PLWA will assume that Ravalli County has no intention of performing its clear legal duties under §§ 7-14-2133 and 7-14- 2134, MCA to remove the encroachment and obstructions,” states attorney Kyle Nelson.
PLWA and RCFWA have been trying to regain public access to Forest Service land that was closed off to public access by a gate for more than 40 years. Following two Montana Supreme Court cases over the issue the county commissioners had the gate removed in June of this year. The gate was re-established in July and again taken down by the county. Then, later in July or in August a new gate was erected across the road at a new location with a threatening message for “trespassers.”
PLWA Director Drew Hanes said that the commissioners have known about the new gate since July. She said when no action was taken by September, they wrote the commissioners, essentially giving them another month to resolve the issue.
Hanes said, “After months of asking for something to be done they were told by the county that it was no business of ours what their plan of action was or what action they might take or when.” She said that’s why they gave the county a deadline of October 16. She said they were being reasonable by any stretch since the law actually requires the commissioners to act “immediately.” She said if they don’t act by then, “We will sue them and advocate for the public.” Hanes said they were a small non-profit with one part-time employee and don’t have a lot of money, “but in this case the law is clear. The public deserves public access to their public lands. I think you give people a fair shake to fulfill that public trust and when they don’t, we have to advocate for the public and that’s our role.”
“Blocking public access on a recorded and legally declared public road and threatening the public with harm should they exercise their rights to access their public lands is intolerable, and PLWA will see the Hughes Creek public access issue through to the end,” said Hanes.
County Commission Chairman Jeff Burrows said that the county was aware of the gate and the felled trees and was investigating the situation. He said the county worked to get the previous gate taken down, not once but twice.
“But this is a new gate on a different property making it a whole different thing and we are having to look into it,” he said. He said that it was not just a gate this time. It was also a threatening sign, some trees apparently felled across the existing public road, and a private road constructed on private property to bypass the closed road.
Burrows called it an “obvious case of encroachment,” but a complex set of circumstances that had to be cleared up first to determine who did what and when and exactly where the new gate is located.
“The wheels of government turn slowly, but they are turning,” said Burrows.