HELENA – Judge Sam E. Haddon issued an order today finding that the United States Forest Service possesses an easement by prescription on behalf of itself and the public for use of Forest Service Trail No. 328, commonly known as the Indian Creek Trail, in the Madison Ranger District of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. This popular trail provides public access into the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.
The order comes as a result of litigation filed against the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Quiet Title Act. The Quiet Title Act allows the United States to be named as a defendant in a civil action “to adjudicate a disputed title to real property in which the United States claims an interest.” Under the terms of the Quiet Title Act, state law governs determinations of property ownership. Under Montana law, a public easement by prescription is established through at least five years of continuous and open use that is adverse (i.e. not by permission) to the interests of the underlying landowner. The Court found that ample precedent existed in Montana law to uphold a prescriptive right of access by the Forest Service and the public for the Indian Creek Trail, and that the right had been established no later than 1973.
The case arose in 2014, when Plaintiff Wonder Ranch, LLC, sued the United States under the Quiet Title Act. Wonder Ranch claimed that the trail, which traverses its 80-acre parcel east of Cameron, Montana, existed and was used by the public by gratuitous permission of the landowner, and that no public right of access existed.
The United States counter-sued, claiming that a prescriptive easement across Wonder Ranch for the public and the Forest Service to use the trail had been clearly established through many decades of stock, recreational, and commercial use. The Court conducted an eight-day bench trial in July and August of 2016. At trial, dozens of witnesses testified to recreational and administrative use of the trail over more than six decades.
In finding for the United States, the Court determined that of the more than 30 witnesses who testified to their use of the trail since 1968, when Plaintiff acquired its property, the vast majority used the trail without ever seeking Plaintiff’s permission. Judge Haddon noted that use of the trail had in fact long-predated Wonder Ranch’s ownership of the property, as evidenced by an 1888 USGS map depicting the trail, a 1940 Forest Service map designating the trail with its current administrative number of #328, and many years of grazing, outfitting, and crossing permits.
Ultimately, the Court found that the United States, on behalf of itself and the public, possesses a prescriptive easement across the Wonder Ranch property for all historical uses of the trail that occurred during the period of prescriptive use (i.e., beginning “no later than” 1968). Based on the Court’s order, such uses include trail maintenance, Forest Service inspection of hunting camps, hiking, horseback riding, and leading strings of pack animals, as well as other historic uses of the trail that regularly occurred during this period. The Court noted that the current location of the trail “has remained unchanged since before the statutory period of prescription” and therefore will become the officially recorded location of the public easement.
“Today’s ruling upholds an important historic route of access to one of the most beautiful parts of Montana, and in so doing vindicates a core Montana value: public access to public land,” said U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana Michael Cotter. “Hats off to the trial team and United States Forest Service staff for preserving the public’s access on a trail used historically by Native Americans, settlers, loggers, ranchers, commercial guides, and recreationists.”
“This federal court decision is an extraordinary win for the public in defending access to public lands all across our nation,” remarked Leanne Martin, the Forest Service Northern Regional Forester. “We will continue to strive to work with landowners regarding other instances of historic access across private lands. We so appreciate the US Attorney’s Office for their support in this case and that of the many people who care about this particular trail.”
This case was litigated by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Mark Smith, Leif Johnson, and Melissa Hornbein, with invaluable support from U.S. Forest Service counsel and staff, and members of the public who testified at trial.