A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit Tuesday that sought to close a road used to access the Bitterroot National Forest south of Darby.
Two landowners along the Robbins Gulch Road filed the lawsuit in 2018 that claimed the U.S. Forest Service had exceeded the scope of a 1962 easement across their properties. The landowners argued the easement was not intended to provide public access but was limited to administrative purposes by the agency.
Robbins Gulch road is located south of the Conner cutoff just off of U.S. Highway 93. The road traverses private property for about a mile before it enters national forest lands.
Larry Wilkins and Jane Stanton filed suit under the Quiet Title Act. The government asserted the landowner’s request was barred under the act’s 12-year statute of limitations.
In February, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kathleen DeSoto recommended the government’s motion to dismiss the case based on jurisdiction relating to the statute of limitations be denied.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen reversed that recommendation.
Christensen ruled the road had been used by the public to access the national forest for decades and that use was documented on a series of maps dating back before the Forest Service obtained the 1962 Robbins Gulch Road easement.
In 1950 — 12 years before the easement was acquired — a map of the region showed the road was in place connecting the highway to the national forest border. In 1964, the Bitterroot Forest issued a map that showed the Robbins Gulch Road as Forest Road 446. That map didn’t show any route restrictions.
Christensen’s ruling said the agency issued several more maps that included the Robbins Gulch Road, including a visitor’s map published in 2005.
“These maps tell a clear story — the Forest Service has been informing the public since, at least, 1972 that it may access the Bitterroot National Forest by using unrestricted road 446,” Christensen wrote. “What’s more — the public heard this message and has been using the road as a public access route since that time.”
The ruling included statements from several residents — including people whose family once owned the land in question — who supported the Forest Service’s contention the road has been used by the public for years.
David Coultas’ grandparents granted the easement to the Forest Service. In a deposition, Coultas said the easement was “intended to allow regular members of the public to use the road, without having to ask anyone for permission.”
In her deposition, Lori Connor — "a predecessor-in-interest to Wilkins' property" — said the road had "always been intended to provide public access," and her family used the road in that way.
“A reasonable landowner observing this public use would have known to check local maps to see whether the road was designated as public or restricted,” Christensen wrote.
Christensen’s ruling also noted the Forest Service temporarily closed the road to public travel in 2006 with the exception of agency personnel, first responders or people with a permit. By excluding the public for that time, Christensen said the agency communicated that it viewed the road otherwise open to the public.
“A reasonable landowner seeing this sign in May 2006 should have known the Forest Service believed its easement to provide public access,” Christensen wrote.
The Forest Service road is closed seasonally at the national forest boundary between Dec. 1 and June 15 to reduce sediment in the creek and protect wildlife. It is most busy during the fall hunting season.
The landowners have 60 days to file an appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
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