Appeals Court Upholds Public Access on Popular Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest Trail
HELENA – The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit yesterday issued an order affirming a ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Sam E. Haddon that the United States Forest Service possesses an easement by prescription on behalf of itself and the public for use of Forest Service Trail No. 328, commonly known as the Indian Creek Trail, in the Madison Ranger District of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. This popular trail provides public access into the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.
The case arose in 2014, when Plaintiff Wonder Ranch, LLC, sued the United States under the Quiet Title Act following the United States’ filing of a “statement of interest” in the trail. Wonder Ranch claimed that the trail, which traverses its 80-acre parcel east of Cameron, Montana, was used by the public by permission of the landowner, and that no public right of access existed. The United States counter-sued, claiming that a prescriptive easement across Wonder Ranch for the public and the Forest Service to use the trail had been clearly established through many decades of stock, recreational, and commercial use.
Following an eight-day trial in 2016, the District Court found that based on the historical evidence and testimony of multiple witnesses, a public easement had been established and maintained through generations of use of the Trail. The Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling, holding that the District Court’s determination that a public right of way existed was not in error and that the easement is held by the Forest Service for the benefit of the public.
“We are very pleased with the Court’s decision,” said Leanne Martin, Forest Service Northern Regional Forester. “Maintaining public access to USDA Forest Service lands is an important part of our mission. At the same time, we ask everyone who accesses Forest Service land through private property, whether an easement exists or access is granted by permission, to be respectful of the landowner’s property rights.”
This case was argued before the Court of Appeals by Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Smith.