The public will once again have motorized access to a portion of national forest land south of Big Timber following the resolution of a 16-year access debate between two private landowners and the U.S. Forest Service over the use of Cherry Creek Road.
“It was the product of a lot of hard work by the Forest Service and the landowners to benefit the public,” said Lauren Oswald, deputy district ranger on the Yellowstone Ranger District.
Landowners George Matelich and Michael Goldberg, who work for the same New York City investment firm, have agreed to build a new road across their property to the forest boundary and then donate a permanent public easement on the road to the Gallatin National Forest, according to the terms of an agreement made public late last week. The road would be located farther south than the existing route up Cherry Creek.
The forest would then conduct an environmental assessment on its portion of the new road — about 1.6 miles — which would join the old Cherry Creek Road on forest land. “If public scoping and environmental review support the proposed work, the Forest Service will continue building the new road as it enters the national forest.” the agency said in a statement. No public access would be granted until the entire route is completed.
The new road will be called West Deer Creek Road No. 421.
John Gibson, president of the Public Land/Water Access Association, praised the agreement.
“I’ll tell you, that’s great,” he said. “That’s a big chunk of national forest and good elk habitat.”
In 1999 the PLWAA, then known as the Public Land Access Association, had sued to have the road reopened after the route was closed when Matelich and Goldberg bought the property in 1997 and locked the gate where Cherry Creek Road crosses three-quarters of a mile of their property.
The access group contended that because the route had been used by the public for 100 years, there was a prescriptive easement across the private land. But the county had earlier denied it was a public route and the Forest Service had signed papers relinquishing its claim to the road.
The PLWAA dropped its suit months later and in return the landowners agreed to leave the road open for 10 more years. The idea was that in those 10 years, the landowners and the Forest Service could come to an agreement. But 10 years of negotiations failed to produce a solution, so in 2009 the landowners again closed the route to the public.
The Forest Service requested that year that its Washington office pursue eminent domain, whereby it would claim the land for the public and pay the landowners for an easement. Since then, negotiations have been guided by Harris Sherman, the undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment at USDA.
“I want to give a lot of credit to the Forest Service,” Gibson said. “Over the years some rangers have tried to get it going and then this superintendent raised the threat of eminent domain and that raised some hackles in D.C.”
Open to limited use
In 2010, Matelich and Goldberg reopened the route to nonmotorized public use, but restated their interest in not allowing a permanent public easement. In 2011, more than 40 Montana sporting groups signed letters to U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Denny Rehberg urging them to support the Forest Service’s quest for eminent domain.
Matelich, who has acted as spokesman for the landowners, could not be reached for comment on the latest deal, but Gibson praised his decision.
“Thanks to Matelich, frankly,” he said. “It’s going to cost him money to build the new road.”
Construction could begin as early as this summer on the portion of the road that crosses private land, Oswald said. It will take longer for the Forest Service to acquire the funds and go through its environmental analysis and then its contracting process.
The road would provide public, motorized access to about 16,000 acres of steep foothills at the base of the Beartooth Mountains valued by hunters, ATV riders, motorcyclists, horseback riders and hikers. The area was burned in the 2006 Derby fire, but is designated under the Gallatin National Forest’s travel management plan as open to highway vehicles with other roads branching off open to seasonal motorcycle use and one ATV route.
In addition to its wildlife values, the area provides sweeping views of the Beartooth and Crazy mountain ranges.
“I would say we’re pleased,” Oswald said. “I think any time we can come to an agreement it’s good for the public.”