Wonder Ranch sign

This sign placed along the Indian Creek Trail in Madison County prompted the Forest Service to file a "statement of interest" on the Wonder Ranch's deed.

USFS

A site tour is planned on Monday to examine a trail into the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in southwestern Montana that is ground zero for a lawsuit by a private landowner against the U.S. Forest Service.

Wonder Ranch LLC, of Dallas, sued the Forest Service in 2014 arguing that the agency had no right to claim an easement along the Indian Creek Trail, which crosses a portion of the ranch’s 80-acres. The owners of the ranch are identified in court documents as Chris Hudson and Eugenia (Hudson) King.

The ranch is located about 23 miles southeast of Ennis in the Madison Valley.

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Wonder Ranch

This satellite image shows the Wonder Ranch with the Indian Creek Trail passing close by. The blue line is the corner of the Wonder Ranch's property.

The Forest Service placed a claim on Wonder Ranch’s deed in 2011 after the ranch owners put up a sign declaring use of the route was by permission only.

“We objected, they did not remove the signs, so we filed a statement of interest,” said Jan Bowey, appeals and litigation coordinator for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. “That’s what the lawsuit is about.”

Since then the parties have dueled in U.S. District Court Judge Sam Haddon’s courtroom over who is in the right, ending with oral arguments in August.

The Forest Service claims it has a prescriptive easement across the property because of long-time use for access to cut timber, graze cattle and recreation, dating back to at least the early 1900s.

The location is one of two main access points to the 259,000-acre Lee Metcalf Wilderness in the Madison Valley. The trail connects to Taylor Creek, a main tributary to the upper Gallatin River. It’s also a popular wildlife highway, funneling elk between the two areas. That’s the main reason the access point draws a lot of use by elk hunters in the fall.

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Judge Sam Haddon

Haddon

The trail crosses about a quarter of a mile of the Wonder Ranch before reaching the forest boundary. In that short stretch, though, the trail is only 100 feet from two private cabins.

The Forest Service proposed an alternate route in 2008, but neighboring landowners who use the trail along with members of the public raised objections that prompted the agency to abandon the proposal.

The current owners of the Wonder Ranch, which is named after government trapper Denny Wonder who homesteaded the 80 acres in 1936, bought the property in 2000.

According to court documents the Forest Service’s own correspondence dating back to 1960 recognizes that public access across the ranch is at the landowner’s discretion, termed “neighborly accomodation.” Attempts by the agency to acquire an easement beginning in 1960 were turned down by two Wonder Ranch owners.

The ranch owners also rejected a Forest Service proposal to move the trail closer to Indian Creek and shield it from the view of the homes, proposing instead to reroute the trail across a high bluff that the Forest Service deemed too “dangerous and unsustainable.”

When Judge Haddon will rule and whether his decision could affect hunter access to the Indian Creek area this fall and into the future is unknown.

Public access to public lands has been a hot-button issue across Montana and the West for decades. Many of the cases that end up in court are the result of new landowners disputing what has been historic public use of old roads and trails and even bridges used to access rivers.

“Usually these are dealt with at the regional level,” Bowey said. “Most are negotiated.”

In her 15 years with the agency, Bowey said this was the first such dispute she has handled that went to court.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.