Madison Valley

The Madison Valley after a storm in early October 2016.

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A federal judge sided with the U.S. Forest Service this week in a lawsuit over a trail dispute in the Madison Valley, ruling that a trail that partially crosses private lands is public.

U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon ruled that there was a public prescriptive easement — meaning an easement that isn’t in writing — on a trail that crosses the Wonder Ranch, a property south of Cameron near the Indian Creek Canyon.

The decision upholds the U.S. Forest Service’s claim that the trail is entirely public and rejects the landowners’ claim that access — however ample — was granted by their permission.

Dale Olson, the Madison district ranger for the Forest Service, said the ruling was a relief to the agency and that it will preserve an important public access point for the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.

“It’s one of our real important trailheads,” Olson said. “We get a lot of use up that way.”

John Bloomquist, an attorney for the plaintiff Wonder Ranch LLC, said they are reviewing the decision and will decide whether to appeal, but that their position remains that public and administrative use of the trail “has been a product of the landowner’s cooperation and permission.”

The Wonder Ranch is an 80-acre property near the mouth of the Indian Creek Canyon on the western side of the Madison Range, south of the community of Cameron. It is named for its original owner, Denny Wonder, who homesteaded there in the 1930s.

It’s now owned by the descendants of a Texas family who bought it in the 1960s. Court documents say the family spent summers there. The ranch was split between the family’s children, who deeded the land to Wonder Ranch LLC, a corporation based in Dallas.

The trail in question begins on an adjacent ranch, passes through the Wonder Ranch and continues on to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness area. No motorized use is allowed on the trail.

Court documents say the landowners’ spat with the Forest Service began when the owners of the Wonder Ranch put up gates and signs that asked people to dismount horses and leash their dogs while passing through the property. Court documents say they put up another sign sometime between 2007 and 2009, saying access was given “by gratuitous permission of the landowner.”

The Forest Service asked the owners to take down the signs and leave the gates open. The dismount and leash signs were removed, but not the one claiming access was given by permission of the landowner.

Forest officials in 2011 filed a document with Madison County asserting that the trail was public. In response, the owners of the Wonder Ranch filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service in 2014. The suit argued that the agency’s claim of a public prescriptive easement had “no validity whatsoever,” citing a 2004 letter from the then district ranger saying that there wasn’t an easement on the property.

But after two years of dueling motions, a trial and a judge’s tour of the property, the court sided with the Forest Service.

Haddon’s opinion says records of the trail go as far back as 1888, and that it was included in a 1940 Forest Service map as trail No. 328. He went on to write about the cavalcade of users the trail has seen, from ranchers moving livestock along the trail as it crosses the property in the ‘30s and ‘40s to the hunters and hikers that have been using the trail in increasing number since the 1980s. Haddon wrote that during the warm seasons in the 1990s, the trail saw between 10 and 20 users a day.

That established that the trail saw ample and varied use, but part of the case hinged on whether the trail users asked for permission. If trail users were consistently asking the landowner for permission, it would show that the landowner was actually granting access by “gratuitous permission,” as claimed by the sign they put up.

But Haddon wrote that the majority of trail users didn’t ask for permission. Ranchers trailing livestock in the last century did so without asking permission and a number of outfitters, hunters and hikers using the public lands accessed by the trail did so without asking permission, supporting the argument that the trail was public.

Haddon wrote that it didn’t matter if the landowners “waved, said hello or served them lunch” — they were accessing a trail they believed to be public.

Conflicts like this arise on public lands frequently, but whether this case will serve as a precedent that leads to the Forest Service winning similar cases more often is not clear.

“It’s really important for upholding that access,” said Martha Williams, a professor at the University of Montana School of Law. “As far as it changing things I would be careful about assuming it changes the law going forward because these access cases are so fact specific, case specific.”

Troy Carter contributed reporting.

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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