Montana public land access ruling could determine future cases
Legal jargon has very specific definitions and a single word may be a turning point in public land access. A Montana public easement dispute between the Wonder Ranch LLC and the U.S. Forest Service is hanging on the decision of a three-panel court regarding the definition of the word hostile, the Billings Gazette reports.
Christopher Stoneback, the Billings attorney representing Wonder Ranch, seeks to overturn a 2016 ruling that says the Forest Service has a prescriptive easement over the ranch’s property to access the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area at Indian Creek in the Madison Mountain Range. Stoneback says that “there was no evidence in the record proving that use of the trail by hikers, hunters, and outfitters dating as far back as 1940 was in any way hostile,” according to the Billings Gazette. Hostile, which can mean a claim of ownership even over the holder of the recorded title, can be applied to a piece of real property, or, in this case, this particular easement that allows the public to use it to gain access to public land.
In his brief, Stoneback says, “It is the character of the use that matters. Hostility must be proven, and it was not. The mere use of a trail, even if extensive or longstanding, is insufficient to satisfy the open, notorious, and hostile elements of a prescription claim.”
In the 2016 ruling, in order to obtain the prescription easement across a quarter-mile portion of the Wonder Ranch, the Forest Service “had to prove that use of the route had been, ‘under Montana law … open, notorious, exclusive, adverse, continuous and uninterrupted … for the statutory period,’” which, prior to 1953, was 10 years; after 1953, only five. The Forest Service’s attorney, Mark Smith, said that the longstanding use of the trail “without asking or receiving any permission is hostile” and added that people had been using the trail for decades.
However, Judge Morgan Christen pointed out an important aspect of the easement. “Maybe everyone knew that these folks were accommodating and that it was all permissive use. How do we know?”
Christen also said that the Forest Service’s move to purchase an easement for access to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area showed that the Forest Service was aware that it didn’t actually have this prescriptive easement and was, therefore, an “implied acknowledgment” of that fact.
While the three-panel court reviews the case, it’s possible that their decision could determine how other public access lawsuits are handled in the future. For example, according to the Billings Gazette, there was a prior case that took place in the Crazy Mountains. Landowners “closed off historic Forest Service routes across their property” because there was not a written easement and ended up charging a man with trespassing in 2016 when he tried to use a historic path.
The court could take several months to decide whether to overturn the original ruling. Stay tuned to goHUNT for further information.