***Editor’s note: Wil Wilkins won his case at the Supreme Court in March 2023. The Court’s decision in Wilkins v. United States affirms that two property owners in Montana will have their day in court to prove that the U.S. Forest Service illegally encroached on their land. It reversed lower courts that accepted the agency’s arguments to dismiss their case on procedural grounds.
Mountain lions are solitary animals. They don’t move in packs; they prefer to be left alone. A mountain lion will stick to his territory. He’ll generally avoid human beings.
But sometimes, hunters go looking for mountain lions.
Here’s how a mountain lion hunt works in Montana: Tourists pay thousands of dollars to guides, who wait until a fresh snow blankets the ground. That makes the lion’s prints easy to track. Once the guides find a lion’s trail, they let loose a pack of hounds that chase the lion up a tree, pinning him in place.
At that point, the hunt is child’s play: A tourist can stand under the tree and easily shoot down the trapped mountain lion, like shooting fish in a barrel.
“I don’t agree with it,” says Wil Wilkins, a 73-year-old blacksmith who lives on the outskirts of Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest. He has seen these hunts, because they sometimes take place on his private property. Hunters have been trespassing ever since the U.S. Forest Service invited the public to use a private road that cuts across Wil’s land.
Having tourists trek across his land to hunt a mountain lion sickens Wil. The tourist’s goal is to take a photo with the dead animal. And the mountain lion has no chance at all once he’s up a tree, surrounded by hunters and hounds.
It’s not hard to understand why Wil sympathizes with the mountain lion. The mountains are his home, too. Like the lion, he wants to be left alone.
And he too is being forced to play a rigged game.
When Wil went to the U.S. Forest Service office to ask what was going on with Robbins Gulch Road, the district ranger laughed at him.
Wil wanted to know why the Forest Service had posted a “public access” sign on Robbins Gulch, the private road that cuts through his property and the property of his neighbor, Jane Stanton, an elderly widow.
Prior landowners granted the Forest Service an easement in 1962, allowing the agency to use the road for timber harvesting. But in 2006, someone from the Forest Service put up the public access sign. Out-of-state strangers began zooming through Robbins Gulch Road. One speeding driver ran over two of the neighbor’s dogs, killing one and crippling the other. Hunters came onto Wil’s land and fired shots near his house. Someone even shot Wil’s cat. (The cat, like its owner, is made of stern stuff—it survived the shooting.)
The Forest Service’s response to Wil, when he first complained after the sign went up, was reassuring: They said the road would soon be decommissioned and removed from Forest Service maps.
But that’s not what happened. After about nine years of bureaucratic feet-dragging and obfuscation, the Forest Service released a plan to open up several roads for public access, including Robbins Gulch Road.
That’s when Wil went to the district ranger.
“I said, ‘Look, this is going from a decommissioned road to now, it’s a public road. And you’re encouraging use of it, of people running four-wheelers and loops through here.’”
The district ranger told Wil the Forest Service had the right to make the final decision about the road’s use.
“What if I disagree?” Wil retorted.
That’s when the district ranger laughed at him.
“Well, Wil,” the ranger said, laughing. “You could always sue us.”
In a 2017 article in The Montana Pioneer, Terry Anderson, former president of the Property and Environment Research Center, noted the U.S. Forest Service’s “arrogance.”
Anderson wasn’t writing about Wil’s dispute, but about the Hudson family, who for decades allowed the public to cut through their private property on a trail that was clearly marked “Private Property. Please Stay on the Trail.” There was no official easement; the Hudsons simply gave the Forest Service permission to use the trail as a public access path.
But when the Forest Service pushed the family to grant an easement, the Hudsons asked whether the trail could be shifted slightly so that it no longer came within 15 yards of their house. The family even offered to pay to redo the path.
Instead of accepting the generous offer, the Forest Service claimed that on second thought, it didn’t need the Hudsons to grant an access agreement; the public’s continuous use of the trail already created a “prescriptive easement,” the agency said.
The Hudsons were forced to file a Quiet Title Act claim to challenge the Forest Service. Unfortunately, the family lost in court.
To see how far Forest Service officials are willing to push for access across private property, consider the advice District Ranger Alex Sienkiewicz (Yellowstone Ranger District) posted on July 7, 2016, on the Facebook page of the Public Land/Water Access Association, a group notorious for advocating public access as an entitlement. Sienkiewicz’s advice: “NEVER ask permission to access the National Forest Service through a traditional route shown on our maps EVEN if that route crosses private land. NEVER ASK PERMISSION; NEVER SIGN IN (concerns—come see me). … Whatever past DRs [district rangers] or colleagues have said, I am making it clear, DO NOT ASK permission and DO NOT ADVISE the public to ask permission.
Asking permission gave power to private property owners, which the Forest Service did not like. Simply taking was Ranger Sienkiewicz’s preferred path.
Wil’s mother used to say he was born a century too late. He was raised by his Mennonite grandparents in an Appalachian home with no television or hot water. They used an outhouse.
Today Wil is a motorcycle-riding blacksmith who performs cowboy poetry and designs stunning iron chandeliers for luxury hotels and private homes. His work has been featured in interior design magazines, even though he keeps a low profile. His business doesn’t even have a website.
If you ask Wil why he loves living in the mountains, he’ll be somewhat baffled by the question: Who wouldn’t want to live there?
“I look across and I see the mountain ridges, and then up above is a snow-cap granite mountain peak,” he says. “And if that doesn’t give people goosebumps to hear about that, I am sorry, but that’s just my ideal place to live.”
He could not accept what the Forest Service was doing to him. The plain text of the decades-old agreement clearly stated the property owners were only granting an easement for timber harvesting, not public use.
“You could show the plain text of the original agreement to a bunch of high school kids and they’d say, ‘Yeah this is not for public use,’” Wil says. But when he reminded the Forest Service of the original agreement, the agency acted as though it didn’t matter.
“Why should we have to sue the government to make them do what they promised they would do?” Wil asks, frustrated. “I mean, it just tore my guts out.”
What made him especially upset was how the Forest Service misled him when he initially complained about the public access sign. For years, he’d trusted the process to play out—a delay that would end up costing him in court.
“They held me back nine years, telling me my road was going to be decommissioned,” Wil says.
At one point, he thought about selling and moving. But he loves his home in Bitterroot Valley.
“If I sold this place for one million dollars, I couldn’t replace it,” he says. “I couldn’t have everything I have here, which is the serenity, the river right across the road from me …. I’ve been all over this country. And there’s not another place that I can think of that I would want to move to.”
He decided to fight. In 2018, he sued the Forest Service.
In November 2022, Wil sat in the gallery of the U.S. Supreme Court while Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Jeff McCoy argued Wil’s case before the nine Justices. I was in the courtroom, too, sitting at Jeff’s table.
The government’s argument is that Wil waited too long to sue; the Forest Service claims the Quiet Title Act’s 12-year statute of limitations has lapsed, a claim Wil disputes on factual grounds. But so far, the courts have accepted the government’s procedural argument, which means Wil hasn’t been able to make his case on the merits.
“The Forest Service wants to overpower me with this legal mumbo jumbo,” Wil says, outraged. Without the chance to tell his story, he felt like everyone—even people in his own town—were jumping on the government’s side.
But the Supreme Court agreed to review the case, and Wil flew from Montana to Washington, DC, for oral argument. “I was so impressed by the Supreme Court that they would want to hear my case,” Wil says.
As he sat in the courtroom—cutting a striking figure in a leather vest and bolo tie—Wil couldn’t hear what the attorneys and Justices were saying about the case that bears his name. Wil is hearing impaired. The Supreme Court offers sound-amplifying headsets for visitors with hearing loss, but the staff didn’t offer one to Wil and he didn’t think to ask.
Instead, he focused on watching the way everyone moved and the expressions they made—almost like it was a silent play.
“All I could do was watch the body language of everyone there,” he told us afterward.
He noticed that Jeff didn’t read his opening statement off a piece of paper: He stood in front of the Justices and spoke directly to them. Wil liked that.
Wil also noticed that the Justices had more questions for the government than for Jeff. Wil saw a couple of the Justices pointing their fingers at the government’s attorney, like they were admonishing him.
But the best moment came at the end.
“When Jeff went up for his closing, every one of the Justices leaned forward with a hundred percent attention for what he was saying,” Wil says. “And when he finished, they all kinda eased back in their chairs.”
Wil couldn’t hear it at the time, but here’s what Jeff was saying in that moment: He was reminding the Court that Congress passed the Quiet Title Act so that property owners could finally challenge the federal government over land disputes. Before the Quiet Title Act became law, Americans had little recourse against the government and “there were gross inequities.” Ruling against Wil on procedural grounds would make it harder for other property owners to resolve inequities.
Wil echoed that sentiment months later, as he and PLF waited—and continue to wait, as of this writing—for a decision from the Court.
“This is not about just me,” Wil says. “This is turning out to be about millions of Americans who might face the same thing. If we win this case, it’ll be a landmark.”
And if the government rules against him?
Even then, Wil says, “I won’t stop fighting.”
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 edition of Sword & Scales.