An organization focused on public access promises to turn up the heat if the Ravalli County Commission doesn’t take action soon on a new gate blocking the controversial Hughes Creek Road.
Public Land Water Access Association recently served the commission with a letter that gave the county until Oct. 16 to take action.
If the county fails to meet the deadline, “PLWA will assume that Ravalli County has no intention of performing its clear legal duties under (the law) to remove the encroachment and obstructions,” the Sept. 21 letter read.
On Monday, Ravalli County Commissioner Greg Chilcott said the commission has no intention of discussing its strategy on how it plans to address the gate with PLWA or anyone else.
“We are going to make it work, but we’re not going to advertise how we’re going to do it,” Chilcott said.
The county has already twice removed a gate blocking the road in the upper reaches of the West Fork of the Bitterroot following a Montana Supreme Court decision that found the Hughes Creek Road was open to the public.
The newest gate is located farther up the road on property owned by the Jess Cox family.
In August, Cox told the Ravalli Republic the gate would remain in place until the county can produce an easement or right-of-way document.
The new gate was posted with a sign that said trespassers could be shot. It reads: “Warning. No trespassing. You quite possibly could get shot or hurt and then try to sue resulting in a long drawn-out court battle. You will lose. This sign will be: Exhibit A.”
The controversy over the road dates back to 1970, when the first gate appeared on the road that was originally built in 1900 to access mining claims. Landowners have taken their arguments that the road should be closed to the public to the Montana Supreme Court twice and lost.
PLWA executive director Drew Hanes said the organization has received multiple complaints from individuals about the new gate and trees behind the gate that were cut down to block the road.
“We are in a situation where we’ve had multiple complaints from people on this issue,” Hanes said. “We don’t want the public going in and endangering themselves trying to tear down the gate, which we’ve had people say they want to do.”
Montana law is clear “that obstructions need to be removed immediately,” she said. “The gate went up in July. It is a new gate but it’s on the same road that’s involved in the district and Montana Supreme Court decisions.”
If the county fails to act, Hanes said PLWA will file a lawsuit seeking to force their hand.
“We are saying (in the letter) that if these obstructions are not removed by Oct. 16 and the public can't access their public land, then we’re going to take it as a sign the county is not willing to fulfill their duties under the Montana Code Annotated,” Hanes said.
Inaction by the county sets a bad precedent at a time when access to public lands is being challenged across the state, she said.
“This is happening all over Montana,” Hanes said. “Gates are going up and situations like what’s occurring in Ravalli County does not discourage anyone else from doing that or addresses the issue of the problem of public officials not doing their jobs.”
“Gates are popping up everywhere,” she said. “Illegal fences are popping up. Signs are popping up. If no one is told that’s inappropriate, that it’s against the law and not how we do things here, the situation becomes untenable for public access in Montana, which is codified in our constitution and something we all cherish. It’s a reason that many of us live here.”
Chilcott said the county is working through the process to ensure that everything is done correctly.
“We’re not turning our back on it,” Chilcott said. “It’s going to happen. By moving the gate to a new property, there are new procedures and processes that we have to follow. This is all uncharted territory for us. We have to make sure that we do it right otherwise it’s all for nothing.”
Chilcott said the county has already shown it is willing to follow the law by removing the gate twice.
“It seems like we have demonstrated our commitment to complying with the law,” Chilcott said. “The return on this is not huge for public lands people. It’s certainly not worth someone getting hurt over it. I would like to think that they would recognize that.”
“We hope that this thing never turns violent, but we sure as heck have had the threats, implied or otherwise,” Chilcott said.