Wil Wilkins and Jane Stanton live next to Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest. A road that crosses both of their properties is the result of a limited-use easement granted to the U.S. Forest Service by the properties’ previous owners in 1962. The general public is not supposed to use the road, but in 2006 the Forest Service began advertising the road as public. Since then, public use of the road has caused serious traffic hazards, road damage, fire threats, noise, trespassing, illegal hunting, and speeding, as well as a gunshot aimed at Wil’s cat. Because the Forest Service is essentially trying to gain a better easement than it paid for back in 1962, Wil and Jane are fighting back.
Larry “Wil” Wilkins is a stonemason, timber framer, and blacksmith who creates popular pieces for interior decorating. Jane Stanton is a retiree who lives across the street from Wil. In addition to being neighbors right next to the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana, they’re partners in a lawsuit against the federal government.
At issue is a road going through both properties, granted by previous owners to the U.S. Forest Service in 1962 for the express purpose of timber harvesting in the National Forest. That is, the previous owners and the Forest Service negotiated a limited-access easement according to which the general public was never supposed to use the road.
In 2006 however, the Forest Service posted a sign along the road—now known as Robbins Gulch Road—advertising the road as public access to the National Forest. This, despite the fact that there’s a wider, better-maintained road to the same part of the forest just a few miles north of Wil and Jane’s property. Ever since, the increased road usage has led not only to serious traffic hazards, speeding, and road damage but also to intrusive and disrespectful activity such as fire threats, trespassing, noise, verbal abuse, and illegal hunting. Wil’s cat was shot by such a trespasser (it’s okay, he recovered).
The public’s use of the road has been an extra burden for Wil, a military veteran who has been diagnosed with PTSD. He values the peace and quiet of his property.
The broader problem is even worse. By deciding decades after the fact that the easement should be for public access, the Forest Service is trying to gain a better easement than it agreed to—at the expense of Wil and Jane’s private property rights. They are fighting back in a federal lawsuit to stop government’s unconstitutional efforts to grab land it never owned.
This bait-and-switch tactic is counterproductive to the goal of expanding access to public lands. Fewer land owners will likely want to negotiate with the federal government to allow access across their property, leading to more animosity between private property owners and the public.