Note: This is the final article in a three-part series dealing with county road access issues.
By Kay Braddock
With a familiarity of maps, computers and government agencies, it’s little wonder why Gary Pfiefle, a retired Natural Resource and Conservation Service employee, would head-up Prairie County’s road rights-of-way project. But according to Pfiefle his decision to approach county commissioner Bill Leach on helping with the project had less to do with his abilities and more to do with an instinctive compulsion.
“Don’t ask me how some of this happens,” Pfiefle said of the uncanny timing of events that led to his new role as the county’s road rights-of-way project manager. Just as he was offering his services, Ray Dolatta, who had been working on the project since about 2005, informed commissioners that he would be absent through the winter as he was taking on seasonal employment with the state highway department. That left an opening for the road rights-of-way project manager. Something Pfiefle was unaware of when he first asked Leach, “Do you need someone to assist with this?”
With 51 county named roads, running through portions of 58 Department of Natural Resources and Conservation state trust land parcels, 198 federal Bureau of Land Management parcels and 533 deeded parcels, the county did indeed need Pfiefle’s assistance.
Pfiefle began working on the project the end of January. Located in a small building behind the county road department shop, he found himself in a one-room setting surrounded by aerial topography maps and quad maps as well as a computer, filing cabinet and a list of existing county roads.
He recalls his first project was reconciling the lists with county records, ensuring each was accurately documented. From there, organizing the large aerial topography maps into a orderly filing system as well as setting up a filing system for each county named road preceded his efforts of actually digging into the application process for acquiring rights-of ways.
“Ray did the heavy lifting,” Pfiefle said. “Getting all of this stuff here is part of the job.”
Besides carting in the needed materials into the one-room building, Dolatta had also established 25 of the 58 county rights-of-ways through state land parcels.
Having completed much of the organizational legwork within the first week, Pfiefle has since found a substantial amount of success in obtaining rights-of-ways through the remaining state lands. On Tuesday, he presented commissioners with 17 rights-of-way applications, leaving the county with only 4 remaining applications needed through state lands.
Most of those applications were listed under the grazing categories, spelling a cost of anywhere between $125 to $300 per acre for the county. Each rights-of-way requires at least a 30-foot width.
Once state lands rights-of-ways are completed, Pfiefle will begin with access through BLM lands.
“It’s a little different procedure,” he said, noting the BLM requires applications for an entire road rather than by parcel increments. “Right now, I’ve talked to BLM and I’ve gotten their guidelines.”
According to Pam Wall and Dalice Landers, both BLM realty specialists, Prairie County isn’t alone in its efforts to establish rights-of-way through the federal lands. They noted other area counties include Garfield, Dawson and Richland, with Fallon and Carter counties much further along in the process than other neighboring counties.
BLM requires no fees for county rights-of-way, but the federal agency has set a 30-year time limit to county access, meaning counties will eventually need to reapply.
“BLM wants flexibility to manage the resource,” Mark Jacobsen of the Miles City BLM field office explained.
Commissioner Todd Devlin fears that may be sticking point with some landowners.
“They want the Bureau of Land Management to step up and make their land perpetuity like they’re going to have to,” Devlin said, explaining a likely response landowners may have to the BLM’s time limit on county access.
Devlin explained the county will be seeking rights-of-ways through satellite roads as well as major roads.
“I think we’re going to try to do a signed deal,” Devlin said, meaning the county will be asking landowners for easements through lands where roads lead through deeded property.
With the majority of access through state trust lands completed and only BLM and deeded properties remaining, Pfiefle’s optimism for the project is evident as he anticipates a completion for access through most state, federal and deeded lands by the end of May.