Landowners hoping to keep the public locked out of Hughes Creek lost an appeal to the Montana Supreme Court this week.
But that doesn’t mean the gate that’s barred access to the upper reaches of the Hughes Creek road for 40 years will come down anytime soon.
“The gate is still up,” said Ravalli County Commissioner Jeff Burrows. “I think this is a big win for us. It was definitely a very favorable decision, but it may not be the end of it. There could be other legal issues that have to be addressed first.”
Burrows said the commission plans to talk about litigation strategy next week and perhaps decide if the county should move forward with removing the gate itself.
The Hughes Creek Road in the West Fork of the Bitterroot dates back to 1900, when it was originally declared a public highway. In 1978, a landowner installed a gate at about the 8.5-mile mark.
Since then, the gate has been mired in controversy.
The commission first instructed the landowners to remove the gate in 1982 after it denied a petition to abandon the upper portions of the road. After the landowners refused, the commission filed a lawsuit that went nowhere in district court for a decade until a judge finally dismissed it without prejudice.
In 2016, landowners filed a new petition to abandon the road at the same spot. The petition was denied in January 2017 after the commission found the road provided access to public lands or water which couldn’t be reached by another public road.
The landowners filed suit in April 2017 asking District Judge Jeff Langton for a declaratory judgment. Langton dismissed the complaint the following June, saying the landowners mounted an incorrect legal challenge.
The landowners appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.
In its unanimous ruling, the Montana Supreme Court said county commissions have specific authority to lay out, maintain, control and manage county roads. County commissioners also have the authority to grant or deny a petition to establish, alter or abandon a county road.
“It is well settled in Montana’s jurisprudence that a district court does not have jurisdiction to independently order the abandonment of a county road,” the ruling read. “The proper procedure for abandoning a county road requires landowners to file a petition with the Board of County Commissioners.”
If a petitioner disagrees with the county board, they can seek a writ of review that may be granted by a district court when a lower board or other official exercising judicial function has exceeded its jurisdictions.
The landowners did not seek a writ of review. Instead, they asked the district court for a declaratory judgment showing the road ended at the gate and saying that allowing the public to continue beyond that point would interfere with their private property constitutional rights.
The Montana Supreme Court said the landowners should have challenged the commission’s denial pursuant to statutory requirements for county road abandonment cases.
“Landowners argue that their claims are not appropriate for a writ of review because they are not contending that the (commission) exceeded its jurisdiction,” the ruling read. “However, they essentially are, because they claim that whether a petitioned-for county road ever existed beyond the gate is a mixed question of law and fact that the (commission) had no authority to decide.”
The Supreme Court ruled the landowner’s civil action regarding the length of the road “was properly dismissed because they failed to follow the proper procedure for county road abandonment cases.”
Jim Olson of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association called the decision a victory for sportsmen.
“I think it’s a really good decision,” Olson said. “It upheld our state law that says landowners cannot block access to public lands. It was a team effort and a long hard fight. In the end, facts and patience won out.”
Burrows said the case has caught the interest of people concerned about other locked gates in the county.
“I do think it’s time to finally put Hughes Creek to bed,” Burrows said. “It’s not in that heavily used recreational area. I have been hearing through the grapevine that there are other roads that access public lands that have been obstructed.
“I’m sure this decision will bring up questions about some of those other gates,” he said.
The Ravalli Republic was unable to contact the plaintiffs, Zackary and Tracy Bugli or Wade, Charlene or Violet Cox for comment.