After numerous court battles and years of controversy, the gate blocking Hughes Creek was officially removed by Ravalli County employees Wednesday.
A Ravalli County commissioner and the Ravalli County Sheriff accompanied the crew of road department employees to take down the gate that’s blocked the remote roadway since 1970.
Ravalli County Commissioner Jeff Burrows isn’t ready to say that’s the end of it.
“We’re going to have to wait and see what happens from here,” Burrows said. “I don’t think we’ve heard the last word from the landowners yet.”
The road in the far reaches of the West Fork of the Bitterroot was originally built in 1900 to access the Woods Placer Mining Co. claims. The original petition creating the county road said it started near the Alta post office and ran along Hughes Creek for about 12 miles.
The debate over where the county road ended started in 1965. Landowners have taken their arguments before the Montana Supreme Court twice and lost. The county commission told the landowners they needed to remove the gate in 2019.
On Dec. 28, outgoing commission chair, Chris Hoffman, wrote a memorandum that instructed the county road crew to remove the gate before Jan. 15. Hoffman said he instructed the road crew supervisor to arrange a time with the sheriff’s office to provide a deputy to “keep the peace should it be necessary.”
Unaware the county had started that action, the Ravalli County Fish & Wildlife Association and Public Land/Water Access Association asked the governor and state attorney general’s office to step in to help open the road in a Jan. 7 letter.
The law firm representing the groups said Ravalli County had “abandoned its statutory duty” to remove a gate blocking access to the Hughes Creek Road after “surrendering to the vigilantism of a few menacing landowners along the road who flout Montana law and threaten harm to anyone trying to remove the gate…”
One of the landowners did reach out to the man who led an armed standoff with the federal government at an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2019. Ammon Bundy followed up with a blog post that claimed county and federal officials conspired with members of different groups to illegally acquire public access through private property in upper Hughes Creek.
Burrows said the commission's decision to move carefully was based on concerns over public safety.
“We hope there will be no confrontation now,” Burrows said. “This all may seem simple to some people, but it wasn’t a simple decision. We are trying to avoid a confrontation up there.”
Sheriff Steven Holton accompanied Burrows and the road crew to the site yesterday. He said they were met there by some landowners who appeared to be expecting them, but there were no issues.
Holton said he was there strictly in a public safety role.
“I don’t have a dog in the gate fight,” he said. “It’s my understanding that at some point the commission made the decision to remove the gate and directed the road shop to do so by a certain date. The road (department) made the request that someone from our office accompany them.”
“What I don’t want is a bunch of out-of-the-area attention with people showing up here trying to make some kind of statement,” Holton said. “As long as everyone obeys the rules, I think we will be fine. If people are using the road access, it’s imperative that they stay on the road and off of private property. Recreationists are responsible for knowing where they are at.”
“It’s taken 40 years to get to this point and it’s not an issue that will be resolved overnight,” he said. “There needs to be a lot of patience and understanding and the only way that’s going to happen is if people are respectful of each other.”
The sportsmen’s groups were happy with the news the gate had been removed.
“Hunters have worked for over a decade to get this road opened,” said Tony Jones, president of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association. “This opens a new area for us to get out hunting, but also as an access point for all Montanans or people who come here to enjoy the outdoors. It’s been long overdue and we’re glad to have an access win.”
“After over a decade of work which resulted in two state Supreme Court rulings that the Hughes Creek Road is a public route that is open to public use, we are glad that the county has made the right decision and returned this important public access to the public’s hands,” said Drew Hanes, executive director of the Public Land/Water Access Association. “While it shouldn’t have taken this long, this is an important win, as we have finally restored an access point to the Bitterroot National Forest.”