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Hughes Creek gate

Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association's Jim Olson poses with an unidentified Forest Service official at the gate across Hughes Creek in this undated photograph.

The end of a long-standing dispute over a gate at Hughes Creek may finally be coming to an end.

On July 9, the Montana Supreme Court denied a second appeal from Hughes Creek area landowners and upheld a district judge’s decision to dismiss a request for a writ of review.

The Ravalli County Commission told the landowners the gate needed to come down last year, but opted not to take action until this appeal was heard.

“That gate will be pulled now,” said Ravalli County Commissioner Greg Chilcott Thursday. “We made that motion months and months ago, but decided to not move forward until the issue was settled at the highest level.”

Chilcott said he believes landowners were given 30 days to remove the gate under the commission’s motion. If they don’t, he said the county will remove the gate and the landowner who owns the property where gate is located will be billed for the county crew’s work.

“We are at the end of it,” Chilcott said.

It’s been a long road filled with court challenges and animosity.

The Hughes Creek Road in 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 the road started near the Alta post office and ran east along Hughes Creek for about 12 miles.

The county initially maintained the full length of the road with a four-horse team and county-owned grader. The historical record said the Forest Service constructed a trailhead at the end of the road.

The disagreement over the county road began with the creation of a map in 1965 that was part of a maintenance agreement between the county and Forest Service. It originally depicted the end of the county road at about 9 miles from its junction with the West Fork Road.

An amended maintenance agreement stated Hughes Creek Road was 12 miles long, with 8.4 miles graded and 3.4 miles primitive.

In 1970, landowners erected a locked gate at about the 9-mile mark consistent with the 1965 map. In 1982, they filed their first petition to abandon the road beyond the gate.

The county commission denied that petition and others that followed. In each case, the commission found the road extended 11.8 miles and provided access to public lands.

Under state law, the commission isn’t allowed to abandon a road that accesses public lands.

The gate obstructs the road at roughly 8.5 miles from its junction with the West Fork Road. Due to their reliance on the 1965 map, the current landowners acknowledged the gate obstructed four-tenths of a mile of the county portion of the road.

The current legal battle started in 2016 when landowners petitioned the board to abandon four-tenths of mile behind the gate to exact point depicted in 1965 map.

After completing a review of the historic record, written comments and public testimony concerning the road, the commission ruled the county road was at least 11.8 miles long and the locked gate was an encroachment that needed to be removed.

They ordered the gate removed by June 1, 2017.

After Ravalli County District Judge Jeffrey Langton upheld the county’s ruling, the landowners filed two separate appeals to the Montana Supreme Court. The county commission opted to wait to enforce the gate’s removal until the appeals were settled.

In both cases, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling.

In its most recent ruling, the landowners claimed the District Court abused its discretion by denying their petition for a writ of review that would consider whether the county commission had exceeded its jurisdiction in determining the status of the road beyond the gate.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court said state law does not allow a county board to abandon a county road used to provide legal access to public lands or waters if there is no other road the public can use to obtain substantially the same access.

The ruling said the commission’s investigation — which included appointing people to go on site and view the roadway, holding public hearings and considering an extensive historical record — showed the Hughes Creek Road extended 11.8 miles, which was several miles beyond the landowner’s gate.

“The conditions precedent to the Board’s jurisdiction to deny a petition for abandonment were met,” the ruling read. “Accordingly, the Board denied the petition for abandonment and ordered the removal of the landowner’s gate blocking the country road pursuant to its authority under Montana law. Ample evidence in the record supports the Board’s decision.”

The opinion was written by Supreme Court Judge Mike McGrath, with five justices in concurrence.

Justice Laurie McKinnon offered a dissenting opinion that said board exceeded its statutory authority that allowed it to “only” grant or deny the petition.

Since the petition before the board was to abandon four-tenths of a mile of county road, McKinnon said the county went too far when it determined the Hughes Creek Road was a county road for nearly 12 miles.

“The effect of the Board’s action were that landowners did not have the opportunity to litigate in a court the existence, location, and conditions of the road, which has long been the practice in Montana,” McKinnon wrote.

“While the Board clearly had the authority to deny the petition to abandon four-tenths of a mile of county road, in my opinion, the Board exceeded its authority when it addressed the remaining miles and determined that section was a county road as well,” McKinnon wrote.

The landowner’s attorney, Jesse Kodadek, did not return a phone call Thursday.

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