The U.S. Supreme Court recently announced that it will hear the case of two Montana property owners who sued the federal government after the U.S. Forest Service unilaterally and illegally changed the terms of a decades-old public access agreement affecting their private land.
Wil Wilkins and Jane Stanton are neighbors, living on adjoining properties next to the Bitterroot National Forest in Western Montana. Their properties share a private road, for which the previous owners granted a limited-use easement to the Forest Service in 1962. Under the terms of the original easement, the use of the road was to be limited to Forest Service employees and approved permit holders, like loggers and ranchers, providing access for necessary maintenance of the surrounding forest lands. Access to the road was never intended to extend to the general public.
However, in 2006, the Forest Service posted a sign along the road granting public access to the national forest for recreational purposes. This increased road use has caused serious traffic hazards, road damage, fire threats, noise, trespassing, illegal hunting, speeding, and other intrusive and dangerous activities.
Wilkins and Stanton accepted the limited-use easement under the terms of the original 1962 agreement forged by the previous owners. But they now contend they are essentially the victims of a “bait and switch” scheme by the Forest Service, which violated their property rights by ignoring the terms of the original limited-use easement and opening public access to their private road. They maintain that the Forest Service does not have the authority to extend public access to their personal property; moreover, they point out another access road a few miles north of their properties that is better maintained and provides adequate forest access for recreational users.
After attempts to resolve the dispute through administrative channels failed, the two property owners attempted to challenge the Forest Service in court, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed their claim on procedural grounds before they had a chance to show the court how the Forest Service had changed the meaning of the easement.
“The government should not be able to manipulate procedural rules to prevent landowners from getting their day in court to protect their property rights,” said Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Jeffrey McCoy. “The deck is already stacked when individuals challenge the government. The Ninth Circuit’s opinion, if it is allowed to stand, makes it even more difficult for property owners to vindicate their rights. We are glad that the Supreme Court will review that decision, and we hope the Court will allow our clients to have their day in court.”
(PLF), appealed to the Supreme Court to have their case heard.