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TERRY — In the wake of a lawsuit, countersuit and lively debate that divided this small town, the public once again has unfettered access to Prairie County's signature scenic attraction, the Terry Badlands scenic overlook.

A three-year dispute over access to the site was recently settled, only a week before District Court trial of a lawsuit was scheduled to begin.

"Essentially the landowner agreed to give the county a 40-foot wide easement where the road crosses his property," said Becky Convery, Prairie County attorney. "We're just glad to get it settled. We think it's the best solution."

Access issue

The conflict is emblematic of other contested road closures across the state by private landowners denying the public what has long been use of a route that accesses public land.

The cases usually end up in court, but the outcomes have varied, depending on the details of the case.

A bill was introduced in this legislative session to put the onus on landowners to explain to county commissioners why they want to close a road, but the bill failed. The road closures and fights continue.

The situation in Prairie County followed what has become a familiar pattern.

Landowner Mike Karrels installed a cattle guard, gate and a private property sign near the head of Scenic View Road. The dirt road crosses roughly four miles of his land before reaching Bureau of Land Management property, where the scenic overlook is located. Altogether, the road is about eight miles long from where it takes off from Highway 253, north of Terry.

Before Karrels bought the property, the public had used the road without restrictions for about 40 years.

The county and BLM had paid to maintain the route because of the overlook, which provides a sweeping view of the rugged badlands north of Terry that are part of a BLM wilderness study area. The BLM installed an informational kiosk at the site, as well as an outhouse.

Claims, counterclaims

The county claimed because public funds had for years been spent to maintain the route, it had an easement across Karrels' property. He said the public had no such right. Karrels said he would allow access to anyone who asked for permission to cross his property — he just wanted to know who was using it and warn them about the condition of the road, which is dotted with sink holes and runs next to a large washout.

"Any responsible member of the community was welcome to come up here," Karrels said during a tour of the road last week.

Karrels eventually countersued the county commission, but decided to resolve the issue because the court fight was expensive and the county agreed to accept liability if someone were injured while driving on the road.

Cliff Edwards, Karrels' Billings attorney, said his client chose to settle because no matter who won in District Court, the case would be appealed to the Montana Supreme Court. That was an expense his client didn't want to bear.

"I got tired of throwing money down the rathole," Karrels said.

Under the settlement signed by Karrels and the county, the county assumes all liability for the road, which Convery said the county does on all of its roads anyway.

"From the county's perspective, we're not agreeing to do anything that we don't do on any other county road," she said.

Hard feelings

The dispute over access to the site, which has been featured on the Internet and in the county's and BLM's promotional material, caused a rift in the town of 600. Some residents saw it as a private-property issue, others as a right to access public lands.

Kay Braddock, editor of the Terry Tribune newspaper, said people she had known since childhood would not acknowledge her after she editorialized against the road's closure.

"It was a very contentious deal," Braddock said. "It caused a lot of hard feelings in this small town."

Karrels said he feels like he's been "hung in effigy" in Terry for his stance.

"I voiced my concerns over the public safety issue for about two years and nobody heard a damn thing I said," Karrels said. "And finally I said until I get some protection under the law, I'm not going to let every Tom, Dick and Harry up here."

Prairie County Commissioner Todd Devlin said he and other commissioners tried to work with Karrels to avoid going to court, even suggesting that the road be open only in the summer.

"That never went anywhere," Devlin said.

Road work

Now the county is looking to the BLM to find out whether the agency is willing to fix the large washout.

"We'll meet with the county in the next couple of weeks to see what we've got out there and see what can be done," said Shane Findlay, of the BLM's Miles City office.

The washout occurred outside the wilderness study area, Findlay said, meaning that the agency can pull dirt from the landscape to fill holes, but it will still have to go through an environmental review.

Devlin said the county will move to properly sign the road, noting that it's not an all-weather route. He also said that, except for the washout, the county road supervisor said the ruts and sink holes would be easy to repair.

"It's in better condition than expected considering the county hasn't been able to maintain it for three years," Convery said.

So despite a resolution to the long dispute, Mother Nature may have the final say in whether the public is able to get to the overlook.

Any work to stall the washout's movement up the gulch will be difficult to maintain because of the erosive nature of the soils, Findlay said.

"It looks like nature is eventually going to take that road," he said.

Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.