Won: The courts upheld an agreement between the Zimmermans and the government that protects their private property.

Like much of the American West, the area around Montana’s Crazy Mountains—the Crazies—is a checkerboard of federal, state, and private land. Also, as is typical in the western U.S., access to the Crazies’ higher-elevation public land is limited and requires permission from private landowners.

This includes the Zimmerman family, whose property in a remote area of the Crazies dates back nearly a century. In an effort to end long-simmering tensions over public access across private property, the family and U.S. Forest Service worked out an easement agreement that suited everyone—the family, the government, and the public. Or so they thought. Activist groups took issue with the Zimmermans’ compromise and roped the family into a legal battle that threatens their own property rights and peaceable land-use negotiations with government agencies.

Between their working ranch and timber harvesting, the Zimmermans literally live off their land. Strangers wandering their property risk interfering with the Zimmermans’ businesses and getting lost or hurt. For the sake of others’ safety and their own livelihoods, they’ve historically allowed folks to cross their land to reach a public trail on one condition: that people respect their property.

The growing popularity of outdoor recreation on nearby federal land led to increasing contention about public access to the Crazies. In the early 2000s, agitators began making bogus claims about nonexistent public easements across private property. Trespassers that refused to seek permission became common enough that the Zimmermans and many other nearby landowners posted warning signs around their property, locked gates, and took other steps to block access without permission.

These measures largely ended trespassing, but the conflict reignited in 2006 and again in 2013 when the Forest Service flirted with the theory of a long-lost public trail on the Zimmermans’ and others’ private property.

The Zimmermans are not against public access to public land in the Crazies, however, so in 2020, they worked with the U.S. Forest Service and donated a well-defined easement across their property, and the Forest Service agreed to abandon speculative claims of any other potential easements on the Zimmermans’ property.

This compromise wasn’t good enough for activist groups that had been pushing for the phantom trail’s purported location. Never mind that the imaginary spot would be far more disruptive to the Zimmermans’ ability to earn a living, or that the Forest Service had completely abandoned their desired trail.

The groups, led by Friends of the Crazy Mountains, were so incensed that the government and property owners voluntarily sat down and worked out a sensible solution, they sued both parties in federal court. The groups’ goal is to void the agreed-upon easement and force the Forest Service to reestablish a public easement on private property where the agency itself declared none ever existed.

The problem for the activist groups is that private parties cannot compel government agencies to pursue dubious easement claims. Doing so would profoundly interfere with private property rights, create huge compensation obligations for the government, and discourage landowners like the Zimmermans from working cooperatively with government to resolve property rights conflicts.

Represented by Pacific Legal Foundation at no charge, the Zimmermans are fighting back to defend their own property rights and reinforce the government’s fundamental duty to respect, not undermine, the private property rights of all Americans.

The district court ruled in favor of the property owners and the Forest Service, but the activist groups appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. On April 8, 2024, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling.

What’s At Stake?

  • Private groups cannot force the government to take your property. The government must respect, not undermine, private property rights.

Case Timeline

April 08, 2024
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit