The Ninth Circuit of Appeals recently affirmed a district court decision to dismiss a lawsuit seeking to close a road used to access the Bitterroot National Forest south of Darby.
Two landowners along the Robbins Gulch Road filed a lawsuit in 2018 that claimed the U.S. Forest Service had exceeded the scope of a 1962 easement across their properties by allowing public access.
The road is located south of the Conner cutoff just off U.S. Highway 93. It traverses private property for about a mile before it enters national forest lands.
Frustrated by increasing public use of the road, the landowners — Larry Wilkins and Jane Stanton — filed suit under the Quiet Title Act, but a district court judge dismissed the lawsuit in May 2020 saying the action was barred under the act’s 12-year statute of limitations.
Wilkins has owned his property since 1991. Stanton bought hers in 2004.
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The landowners argued that their claims — which included challenging the public use of the easement, parking along the easement and the government’s satisfaction of its obligations under the easement — accrued at different times and should have been analyzed on an individual basis.
But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said the landowners’ claims were all ultimately premised on the public’s alleged unauthorized use of the road and therefore accrued at the time “when a reasonable landowner should have known of the government’s position that its easement allowed for public use of the road.”
Forest Service maps from 1950 to 2005 identified no restrictions on the road, and together with the historic public use of the road should have alerted a “reasonable landowner of the government’s view regarding public access of the easement more than twelve years before” the landowners filed suit, the ruling stated.
The road receives most of its use during hunting season. The Forest Service closes the road at the property line from Dec. 1 and June 15 to reduce sediment in the creek and protect wildlife.