By Kay Braddock
Although county officials continue to express bewilderment on the ownership status of Scenic View Road, there seems to be little confusion as to the status of the gate that sits on the road.
“He left us a key,” Prairie County Sheriff Bill Klunder said of landowner Michael Karrels, who locked the gate during the first week of the general hunting season, about five weeks ago.
“Until it’s resolved, we can’t tell anybody to go through,” Klunder explained. “I don’t even know where it’s even at as far as what the commissioners and county attorney are doing.”
County commissioner Todd Devlin explained the board of commission has been “acting in good faith,” with Karrels and his attorney Lance Tonn, even sending a certified letter asking Karrels to unlock the gate.
Despite the letter the gate has remained locked on the road that leads to the popular Terry Badlands overlook area and 26 sections of public lands.
“Our job, as county commissioners, is not to make that a county road,” Devlin said, explaining further the commission simply wants to know the legal ownership status of the road. The commission had hoped the road would stay open until the findings of road law expert Peter Dayton were delivered.
About three months ago both sides agreed to share the expenses in retaining the legal opinion of Dayton, a Missoula lawyer, whose expertise seems to lie in Montana road law. Each side has submitted their argument to Dayton, but knowing when his opinion will come through is anyone’s guess.
“I don’t see him (Dayton) camping on this and holding us in limbo,” Commissioner Bill Leach said. “I’m a little hesitant to demand removal of it (the lock) until we get…the decision from the road law expert.”
John Gibson, president of the Public Land and Water Association, said their group is watching the Scenic View Road situation as well.
“I’ll be interested to see what (Dayton) has to say in this,” Gibson said, who has served as president of the PLWA for the past ten years. According to the PLWA’s website their mission is, “to maintain, restore, and perpetuate public access to the boundaries of all Montana public land and waters.” There are at least 15 access points the group is currently watching statewide, many in or near eastern Montana.
PLWA’s website states their mission is, “to maintain, restore, and perpetuate public access to the boundaries of all Montana public land and waters.”
Gibson questioned the motives behind the locked gate, suggesting landowners will sometimes attempt to block public lands neighboring their private lands for hunter outfitting purposes.
“I believe this is what this is all about,” Gibson said.
The situation with Scenic View Road may likely lead to a new law regarding public access to roads statewide, according to Devlin, who fears the changes will be a detriment to private landowners.
Devlin points to the fact that the road was built and maintained using county funds for over 40 years.
“Nobody stepped in front of the road blade, (and said) ‘What are you doing blading my road? What are you doing putting tax dollars into my private road?’” Devlin said of the current and prior landowners who owned land in which Scenic View Road runs through.
“(This is) absolutely the worst road that you could pick in eastern Montana to test private property rights,” Devlin said. “ You couldn’t have picked a worse road. It will probably lead to a change in the law either by referendum or by legislature.”
Published December 3, 2008