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BIG SKY — When a Texas millionaire built his 8,000-square-foot log home here, he placed it on or near a road that hikers, bikers and skiers had used for decades to access Forest Service land and the Spanish Peaks Wilderness.

Since 1966, the U.S. Forest Service has held a 60-foot-wide easement that allows Road 166B to loop up to Forest Service land through four privately owned sections. It’s the only remaining road that allows easy access from the main Big Sky highway.

But now, the road appears to dead-end at Stan Schlueter's driveway, and he has used his political connections in Congress to sway negotiations with Gallatin National Forest officials who are striving to protect the public’s access.

A recent U.S. Forest Service plan calls for closing the road in favor of a trail. The proposal, presented in April, would close all but a half-mile of the 5-mile loop to the public. The road would become a private drive for landowners.

In exchange, landowners would provide an easement for a 7-mile trail to get to Forest Service land, but a yet-to-be-identified public entity, not the Forest Service, would own the easement.

Many local residents have opposed Schlueter's push to close the road.

The proposed trail, said Big Sky resident Eric Ossario, follows a rugged route, dropping more than 500 feet before climbing again, making it difficult for recreational skiers.

That doesn’t concern trails user Steve Johnson, but he does question other parts of the plan.

“My reaction is, ‘It sounds good,’ but the devil is in the details,” Johnson said. “The guy behind it made a living out of bending the government to his will. We feel a little out-gunned.

“But welcome to Big Sky.”

The road controversy began in 2000 when Schlueter — who bought one of the four 640-acre sections for less than $2 million — built his log home and garage on the easement or so close to it that the development obscures the western leg of Road 166B.

Schlueter and the Forest Service disagree on how the house ended up there in the first place, and that disagreement set the stage for the turmoil that has followed.

Schlueter won't talk to the press, deferring questions to spokesman Brian Kuehl.

Kuehl claims the Forest Service gave Schlueter the go-ahead to build while they were negotiating a trade of easements. Forest Service documents indicate otherwise.

“Before Stan built, he told the Forest Service where he would build his house, and they said that would be fine. He had an oral agreement,” Kuehl said. “He did not build in the easement. He built next to the easement.”

Forest Service manager Bob Dennee said construction had begun before the Forest Service was aware of the house. When they notified Schlueter of the encroachment, he didn't stop building, Dennee said.

Bridger-Teton National Forest supervisor Jose Castro, who started as Gallatin district ranger when the house was built, said Schlueter made some major alterations to the right of way, rerouting a piece of the road.

“Those were all unauthorized actions. They were encroachments. They seriously affected public and administrative access on that road,” Castro said. “I drove the road and, lo and behold, there was his house. He was adamant that he had sent us letters, and we didn't respond. Therefore he took no response as a go-ahead.”

The Forest Service has never filed a notice of encroachment. Dennee said it's still a tool that could be used.

Instead, between 2001 and 2009, district rangers spent months trying to come up with deals acceptable to Schlueter that would restore the road and then submitting proposals for public comment.

After only two commenters indicated they would support surrendering the western road easement in exchange for a lesser easement, forest supervisor Mary Erickson announced in August 2009 that such proposals were “not in the public interest.”

But just a month later, the Forest Service surprised commenters with a sudden decision to return to the bargaining table.

Schlueter has substantial political influence, and the Chronicle has learned that he used it in an attempt to affect the easement negotiations.

Schlueter was a Texas state representative until 1989, when he became a lobbyist. Since starting the Schlueter Group, a Texas lobbying company, he has been no stranger to the Texas congressional delegation. One of his associates was the 2006 campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

According to Forest Service documents obtained under Freedom of Information Act requests, Schlueter has reached out to the Texas senator in his dealings with the Gallatin National Forest.

Erickson, though, denies that Montana's congressional delegation contributed to any pressure.

Forest Service staff has provided regular updates to Sen. Max Baucus, but Gallatin district ranger Lisa Stoeffler said it's not unusual to update Montana's congressmen.

It is somewhat unusual for a Montana forest district to update a Texas legislator, specifically Hutchison, but that's been happening, too.

Baucus spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue agreed that it was standard practice for federal agencies to keep the senator's office informed and said that Baucus has played no direct role in the negotiations between Schlueter and the Forest Service.

Records show Baucus met one-on-one with Schlueter in January 2008 and March 2009, but no details of those meetings are available.

“To the extent our office ever weighed in with either side, it would have been simply to encourage all parties to work toward a resolution that provides the best outcome for public access to public land,” Donohue said in a written reply to the Chronicle.

James Christofferson, Hutchison's chief of staff, got involved in the issue in 2007, according to Forest Service documents.

A May 2009 letter said that Erickson informed Christofferson that the Forest Service could not justify surrendering the road easement without public support. Christofferson told her “we should speed up the process,” the letter said.

A month later, an email shows that, after learning the deal fell through, Schlueter demanded that Erickson prohibit firearms and campfires on the easement. He copied the email to Christofferson, who called Erickson and accused Forest Service employees of inciting opposition to Schlueter, according to the Forest Service documents.

Then, in the summer of 2009, Schlueter hired Kuehl.

Kuehl worked for Baucus from 1997 to 2000, and was the senator's chief of staff for the last year. Then he was a partner in the Clark Group, a policy and regulatory consulting group specializing in the National Environmental Policy Act.

The Clark Group became Vela Environmental, which was acquired a few weeks ago by Kennedy and Coe, a Kansas-based consulting and accounting firm specializing in the banking, manufacturing and agriculture industries.

Forest Service documents indicate that in September 2009, Kuehl wrote a draft amendment that would have required the Secretary of Agriculture to override public process and eliminate the road easement on Schlueter's property or convert it to administrative use only. The amendment was intended to be part of the 2009 Interior appropriations bill.

Forest Service documents show that U.S. Department of Agriculture attorney James B. Snow wrote the Energy Committee legal counsel a terse letter criticizing the amendment and proposing different language if the amendment was introduced.

“Frankly, we're appalled by the proposed appropriations end-run by Brian Kuehl of The Clark Group… The language Mr. Kuehl is advancing would eviscerate public access rights as well as our rights to defend them,” Snow wrote.

An email from Snow mentions that at the same time, Schlueter asked Sen. Hutchison, then U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, and U.S. Rep. John Culberson. R-Texas, to go with him to meet with the USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment to apply additional pressure on Erickson.

“Brian (Kuehl) made a point to emphasize that Stan has political ties, knows George W. Bush, and that Stan could have ‘fixed this’ long ago,” Snow wrote. “Brian said Stan could have obtained a congressional solution, Stan has not done so to date, but now Stan wants to push that.”

What followed over the next three days was a flurry of slightly panicked Forest Service emails that produced a Sept. 30, 2009, meeting with Kuehl to consider a new proposal.

This week, Erickson denied that the legislative influence played any part in her choice to consider any proposal or in her impending decision on the proposal under consideration.

“Yes, there was a potential appropriations rider, and it's always a possibility. That isn't what we'd use in the decision process,” Erickson said. “There's always going to be interest on this one from different levels, but we've always tried to stay centered.”

While not every public lands access issue has a landowner pushing political buttons, every district ranger must quickly learn the ins-and-outs of public lands law.

It's a situation that plays out with increasing regularity across the West, but especially in Montana where the population once was small and public lands and access were a priority. In the past few decades, newcomers have bought their dream property near public lands and attempted to close long-used roads to keep the public out.

Recent high-profile cases include other rich landowners like James Cox Kennedy shutting off a portion of the Ruby River, a case that has gone to the state Supreme Court, and a Smith River landowner near Helena gating a Tenderfoot Creek county road.

As early as 1982, Great Falls attorney Charles Lucero presented the growing dilemma in an article in the University of Montana Public Land Law Review.

“It just gets bigger and bigger - I could see it was going to be a problem way back when,” Lucero said. “It's not fair that these people can essentially limit access, especially under circumstances where there's been an easement and a history.”

The tension between misunderstood property rights and public access keeps the U.S. Forest Service and the state hopping to deal with each case. Sometimes rangers fail to act, and sometimes, landowners fail to comply.

Although Schlueter and the Forest Service disagree on the origins of the dispute and the appropriate remedy, the district rangers must remain accommodating, even after 13 years.

“It's just part of what the job is — it gets more complicated all the time,” said District Ranger Stoeffler. “Big Sky — it's probably kind of an anomaly. We used to own half the land and we reserved certain rights that largely exist on private land. It's part of our job to maintain the public's rights, and we have to work with landowners. And there's more of them all the time.”

When asked if anything could help the Forest Service fend off disputes, Erickson said more resources — money and manpower - would help so another house wouldn't pop up without being noticed.

“It's not likely we'll get that but that would be helpful. I don't think more heavy-handed laws would be useful,” Erickson said.

Erickson and her predecessor have spent a significant amount of resources on 13 years of wrangling with Schlueter. Now, as she considers the 120 public comments from the last easement proposal, recent developments may negate that effort.

One of the early options offered by the Forest Service was to build a short section of road that would bypass the hairpin turn that leads to Schlueter's house.

Former district ranger Castro said Schlueter rejected that option because he didn't want to pay for an expensive cutoff.

But in the past two weeks, the Forest Service and Schlueter have worked toward pursuing that option, Dennee said. A bypass would remove the need to close the west side of the road.

Big Sky resident Ossario said Schlueter has been advertising his Big Sky property for sale in Texas for $30 million. That would apparently be incentive to resolve the issue.

But even if Schlueter leaves, the conflict won't die.

In 2010, Kuehl convinced other landowners to join a coalition to close the road and they now intend to subdivide and sell parts of their property. So they still want the road to be private.

“This is like ‘The Tudors’ or something. It deserves its own mini-series,” Ossario said.

Laura Lundquist can be reached at 582-2638 or Follow her on Twitter at @llundquist.

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