Another gate blocking public access up Hughes Creek Road was removed by a Ravalli County Road crew just before Christmas. The pile of downed timber blocking the roadway just past the gate was also removed. The county had already removed one gate twice that was blocking the road after the landowners lost two lawsuits that went all the way to the Montana Supreme Court. Another metal gate restricting access with warning signs, however, was then placed a little further up the road on property owned by Jesse Cox.
The crews were expecting to dismantle this metal gate when they arrived, but it had already been removed by the landowner and replaced with wooden fenceposts supporting a barbed wire gate. The crews removed that fencing and the trees blocking the road just past the fence.
Public Land/Water Access Association, a non-profit organization working closely with Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association, urged the county for months to take action on the issue before finally filing suit in October to force the county to uphold the law and remove Cox’s gate.
The problem with the county’s latest action is the large, tracked excavator that now blocks the roadway just a little farther up from where the gate was.
Landowner Jesse Cox told the press last week that he had parked his excavator in the road because he was thinking of exercising his mineral rights by digging some test holes in the roadway.
The County, in the meantime, filed a motion on December 30, 2021 asking the judge to dismiss the PLWA lawsuit because it had fulfilled its obligation.
Commissioner Jeff Burrows said that the county’s action was not in response to the lawsuit. He said the county has from the beginning been trying to resolve the issue and get the road open but that it has been complicated. He said the county was taking the time to do due diligence in the process.
Burrows said the action they took should render the lawsuit moot. He said the county had done what it was being asked to do.
And what about the excavator?
“Now we are back to the drawing board,” said Burrows. He said it was a huge machine and presented significant logistical problems and legal problems. He said getting in and moving something like that now with the snow on the roads was problematic and the legal aspects needed to be considered.
He said he did not know the extent of what was going on on the road beyond the excavator.
“We are on a whole other level of things,” said Burrows. “We will have to talk with the County Attorney. We don’t know how to proceed, and we are looking for advice. They are aware of it, and they are working on it.”
Drew Hanes, executive director of PLWA, said that her organization does not believe the lawsuit should be dismissed when the road is still being blocked. She said after two decisions by the Montana Supreme Court that Hughes Creek is a known public road, the law states that any obstruction to a public road must be removed immediately.
Hanes said that they had already given the county an extension in the process and then were asked for another. She said they needed to know what the county’s plan was for enforcement and were told it was none of their business. They were also told, she said, that the county was not willing to agree to any requirements for future enforcement.
Hanes said that she believes the county has no will to enforce public access.
“We don’t want to file lawsuits,” she said. “It’s a lot of hard work and its expensive. But the government needs to give public property rights the same respect they give to private property rights.” She said the county needs to get that excavator out of the road before it can say it has met the legal requirements in this case.
“Our main goal is to get this road open and restore access,” said Hanes.