After hearing from Hughes Creek landowners, the Ravalli County Commission has decided it will take one more round of comments before making its final decision on what to do about a controversial gate in the West Fork of the Bitterroot.
Ravalli County Commissioner Jeff Burrows said a meeting has been scheduled at 10 a.m., Friday, Sept. 21.
On the calendar, the meeting is titled "Discussion and possible decision on delaying gate removal on Hughes Creek Road (removal scheduled for September 23rd.)''
Burrows said landowners requested the meeting. “All interested parties should come and weigh in,” Burrows said.
The commission had set a deadline of Sept. 23 for the landowners to remove the gate that’s been there since 1978.
The deadline was set after Ravalli County District Court Judge Jeffrey Langton dissolved a temporary restraining order against the county.
In June, Langton dismissed a lawsuit the landowners had filed against the county’s earlier decision to require the gate be removed. The Montana Supreme Court rejected an appeal from the landowners.
After Langton dismissed a request for a writ of review and application for a preliminary injunction against the county on Aug. 9, two landowners filed notice they plan to file a second appeal to the Montana Supreme Court on that latest decision.
Burrows said the purpose of the meeting was to offer one more opportunity for the commission to gather information on whether the county should move forward with the removal of the gate before that second appeal is decided.
Last week, Burrows said the commission hoped that a solution between the county and the landowners could be worked out.
In a letter to the editor published in today's Ravalli Republic, landowner L.M. Mikolaichik called for a state investigation into the matter.
Mikolaichik owns the land where the gate is located.
“Allow me to be clear, I have never and will never give any right of way nor easement to Ravalli County for public access through my land,” Mikolaichik said. “I am not asking the county to wait to rip my gate out, I demand that the county never rip my gate out.”
Retired Bitterroot Forest district ranger Dave Campbell said he applauds the fact the commission took a stand on the issue earlier.
“I think the Supreme Court has backed them up following some really good work by (deputy county attorney) Dan Browder,” Campbell said. “At least three of the commissioners have had the backbone to stand up and say fix that.”
Campbell said some of the Hughes Creek landowners have made statements that said the road above the gate hasn’t been used by the public before.
“That’s flat out wrong,” he said. “There are many, many affidavits that show that the Forest Service and the public used that road before the gate was built. They are trying to create a false narrative.
“I think it’s really a good thing for the county to work to both protect access and restore access where it’s been lost,” Campbell said. “It’s a huge issue across Montana … I think the next step is for the sheriff to go with the road department to remove the gate or to let the landowners do it.”
Campbell expects there will be people at the upcoming meeting in support of the commissioner’s decision to remove the gate.
“I think the commission did the right thing,” he said. “When a public official does the right thing, they should hear from people who care about that issue.”