The Hill: A Montana ‘mountain man’ goes to court to protect his property rights

November 28, 2022 | By JEFF MCCOY
Will Wilkins in front of mountains

Wil Wilkins of Ravalli County, Mont., acknowledges he’s a bit of a throwback. Growing up in West Virginia, he says his mother used to tell him, “You was born a hundred years too late, boy.”

It’s an apt description of this self-described “mountain man.” Wilkins is a dedicated practitioner of traditional crafts such as stone masonry, blacksmithing and timber framing — what he calls “the forgotten arts.” He has old-school ideas about patriotism and service, which led him to enlist in the military during the Vietnam era, and he is an ardent conservationist. He’s committed to a traditional ethical code of honor under which, when making an agreement, you keep your word and do what you say you’re going to do.

It’s this last commitment that has brought Wilkins into a legal dispute with the U.S. Forest Service over an access road that runs through his property. Wilkins holds that, by allowing public access to the road, the agency has failed to keep its word — and he’s fighting in federal court to hold the bureaucracy accountable.

Wilkins has called Montana home for more than 40 years. He bought his property, just over nine acres adjacent to the Bitterroot National Forest, in 2004. When he bought the property, surrounded by pine trees and with plentiful birds and wildlife, it corresponded to a vision he’d had his entire life.

“I’ve always had a desire, always had in my mind this picture-perfect place, where I’m living on this valley floor and I look across and I see the mountain ridges, and then up above all of it is a snow-capped granite mountain peak,” he says. “That’s just my ideal of the perfect place to live — and that is exactly where I live. I can walk out in my front yard and I can look to the northwest, and right there is Trapper Peak with a 10,000-foot snowcap mountain peak. And then in front of that, you have the rolling hills and it comes right on down to the river.”

Outside his front door sits Robbins Gulch Road, built and maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, the result of a limited easement granted to the Forest Service by the property’s previous owners in 1962. That agreement permitted the Forest Service to build and maintain this unpaved access road through the private property, now owned by Wilkins and his few neighbors along the road, into the national forest, primarily for purposes of timber harvesting and general maintenance.

Importantly, the 1962 easement did not grant access for general public use — the road was to be for Forest Service employees and permitees only. When he bought his spread, Wilkins wasn’t entirely enthused to have the road on his property. But since the easement agreement restricted the road’s usage, he figured he could live with it.

Unfortunately, it soon became clear the government was not abiding by the terms of the original agreement. Wilkins says that after the Forest Service posted signs encouraging public use of the road for visitors seeking entry to the national forest, traffic and parking increased dramatically. Wilkins and his neighbor have endured trespassing on their property and even theft — someone stole a pair of elk horns he had mounted on his porch. One of his neighbor’s dogs was killed by a speeding driver, and at one point someone shot Wilkins’ cat (which survived).

Wilkins reviewed the easement agreement, which clearly designated Robbins Gulch Road as a right-of-way for limited use. But discussions with the Forest Service to get the agency to honor its agreement were fruitless. Wilkins hasn’t forgotten the response from a district ranger: “He crossed his arms, leaned back in his chair, looked at me and he started laughing,” Wilkins recalls. “He said, ‘Wil, you can always sue us.’ And that’s when I said to myself, ‘OK then, I will.’”

Wilkins connected with Pacific Legal Foundation and we’re helping him and his neighbor, Jane Stanton, to defend their property rights. We’ve reached the Supreme Court after years of litigation to stop the Forest Service from abusing the easement to effectively take their land without compensation — a clear violation of their constitutional property rights.

Wilkins notes he’s not asking for special treatment; he just wants the government to agree to “what they wrote and said they would do.”

On its face, the case should be a slam-dunk. But in litigation against the federal government, there are no guarantees — after all, your adversary is a bureaucracy with an in-house legal team and nearly limitless taxpayer-funded budgets. Moreover, no federal agency likes to admit they’re wrong. So it’s safe to say Wilkins has a tough battle ahead, but he’s confident about his chances, knowing the government’s obligations are spelled out in the plain text of the agreement. “They just have to be held accountable,” he says.

That outlook may seem old-fashioned, but remember, Wilkins was “born a hundred years too late.” It’s why he’ll keep fighting to defend his constitutional rights and, by extension, the rights of others who may be targeted by regulatory agencies.

This op-ed was originally published at The Hill on November 28, 2022.