By Deanna Bockness
Prairie County Commissioner District II
I drove up Big Sheep Mountain Road and onto the latest Prairie County Road acquisition, identified as “Lisk Creek Road, a two track path leading into what once housed Sheep Mountain Community Hall and the remnants of a WPA project. (The building is now used as the Brockway Hall). A concrete foundation enclosed by a barbed wire fence, a dam of stone masonry and groundwork of sandstone pavements, and the remains of tennis courts decomposing from age and elements are left behind. The Meehan grove of trees whisper stories of Fourth of July picnics, dances and community gatherings in the 20’s and 30’s. The five or so mile path travels up a couple of BLM sections, past private pasturage and tilled farm land and meets up north with the Hughes Road. The grass on the road is as high as the pickup grill and the soil is a sticky gumbo that will clump like concrete and will attempt to devour even the largest truck. Baha-ing along, enjoying the sunny snow-free February day, I thought to myself that I would be the first to plead non compos mentis on why the Prairie County Commissioners declared this a county road.
A local landowner took a petition to establish a county road, got the signatures of 10 freeholders, public hearings were advertised and held at the courthouse, and a motion to declare it a county road was made with minimal maintenance travel at your own risk signage to be placed. What plausible reasoning could lurk behind this latest rage of having public access to properties?
Now this Lisk Creek road was already drawn on the State of Montana Gas Tax Map. The criteria for a gas tax road is one that is open to general public and to public travel and use except during periods of extreme weather or emergency conditions, passable by a 2-wheel drive vehicle. A restrictive gate, orange markings on post, or a “no” trespassing sign would cause the loss of public use privileges on these gas tax roads and result in their removal from gas tax rolls. In other words, if any landowner on the road chose to post the land or block access, the road is erased…it’s gone.
A parcel of real property which has no access or egress (entry or exit) and cannot be reached except by crossing another’s property is referred to as being landlocked. Without a recorded easement that provides access in perpetuity on a parcel of land it may be impossible to obtain title insurance and many lending institution guidelines prohibit using such lands as collateral for loans. The sale of more than one ranch in eastern Montana fell through because of the lack of a recorded public easement to the properties. The days of neighborly accommodations and verbal agreements are gone…if it is not in writing, it does not exist in a court of law.
Now, I am not a big land owner, nor do I lease any BLM lands to graze cattle. But I do know of many groups that tout the preservation of wild lands and the protection of the remaining open space from any development. There are big plans out there for for the establishment of huge wildlife corridors and the restoration of all native species. I have a bad case of envirophobia. I became petrified with fear as I envisioned the Big Open encompassing the Terry Badlands and see a primitive mammal with high humped shoulders, a large heavy head, and short black horns goring the greenie tourist who happens to be standing on his head while the friend takes the picture.
I can easily relieve the horror of “The Birds”—you know the film by Alfred Hitchcock-depicting Terry Montana, for some unexplained reasons, being the subject of a series of widespread and violent sage grouse attacks. The culprit behind this attack was BLM Director Bob Abbey and his plans to implement actions to conserve and restore the greater sage-grouse and its habitat on BLM lands over the short and long term…protecting the land from those horrible activities such cattle grazing, oil and natural gas drilling, the county or town removing gravel from a BLM pit, or using a motorized vehicle on BLM land.
Then comes the realization Prairie County has only 30- year Title V FLPMA right-of-way on BLM lands. States and counties that do not hold clear title for perpetuity ( or a RS2477) rights-of-way may not be able to guarantee local access routes which include farm to market, mail and school bus routes, routes for medical emergency, fire and law enforcement needs. How will BLM’s failure to manage lands on the basis of multiple use and sustained use affect Prairie County? Will the county be forced to undergo costly and time consuming litigation to keep the county roads we have?
Laugh all you want, but the Prairie County Commissioners face a continuing nightmare in trying to figure out what is in the best interest, short and long term, for not just the current generation but for generations to come. Roads issues can be difficult and time consuming. There are hard decisions to be made in figuring out what should be public access and what needs to remain private access. When it is all said and done, we are trying to protect the county’s residents regarding access issues. Coming up are county wide are petitions to not just add public easements, but also abandon public easements. There is a process that must be followed for notice and public hearings. Also per Montana law, the board of commissioners may not abandon a county road or right-of-way used to provide existing legal access to public land or waters, unless another public road or right-of-way provides substantially the same access. The board may not abandon county road right-of-way used to access private land if the access benefits two or more landowners unless all of the landowners agree to the abandonment. But there are old easements from the beginning of the county that are no longer roads that must be cleaned up off the books. With the declaration of a road, it does not mean that the road will then become a well-maintained graveled or paved super highway. Due to funding limitations, a road that has occasional or intermittent travel and is not a mail or school bus route and no homes exist on the road, there is a great chance that it will stay a minimum maintenance, travel at your own risk road, seasonal road. One may not agree with some of the decisions made, but this is your county…all input at public meetings is appreciated and your input is important in making the best decisions.
Published February 29, 2012