Six years ago, Casper native Howard Christman approached the Natrona County Parks Board, concerned about increasing amounts of trash and clueless hikers wandering off largely unmarked sections of the Bridle Trail running behind his Casper Mountain cabin.
The Parks Department installed No Trespassing signs shortly after, Christman said, and vandals promptly defaced and uprooted them.
Today, Christman’s property has become the flashpoint for all landowner disputes involving the Bridle Trail’s zigzag flirt with private property. Vandalism to Christman’s property has increased dramatically in the past three years, he said, with a few users hurling rocks onto his roof, camping in his yard and letting dogs off leashes.
And after a presentation at the Natrona County Commission’s work session Tuesday, he hopes the issue will be resolved once and for all.
“This is at the point where we have to make a decision one way or another,” Christman said. “Right now, the park is not a good neighbor.”
Long before Christman purchased his land near Rotary Park on Casper Mountain, the Bridle Trail system utilized a road connecting his cabin and other Casper Mountain homes to Garden Creek Road.
Bridle Trail users have historically traveled a few hundred feet on the road and turned left onto a connector trail through Christman’s property to access roughly five more miles of Bridle Trail routes on county land. A combination of misleading deer trails and poor signage in that area of the trail led to increased traffic through Christman’s property, creating a well-traveled footpath that passes directly behind his home.
Christman wants that part of the trail closed. He has constructed log-pile and tree branch barriers to block Bridle Trail users from traveling the trail behind his house.
Christman said he wants a plan of action from the commission, detailing when and where identification signs will be constructed to tell Bridle Trail users where to go.
“I want a clear, defined process of what we’re going to do; systems and timelines of when we’re going to do all of this,” Christman said. “So that we know that we have good faith in the fact that it’s going to be carried out.”
And he doesn’t want to sign any easements granting public use of any trail running through his property.
“An easement is forever. It destroys your sellability,” Christman said. “If I ever wanted to hand it down to my family, they’d have to deal with that.”
Casper resident Neil Benton will also be at Tuesday’s commissioner work session, presenting a letter signed and supported by nearly 200 bikers and hikers with the Friends of the Bridle Trail user group. His concern is that a word-of-mouth agreement from a landowner doesn’t guarantee that, years from now, new players won’t be battling this same issue.
“The Friends of the Bridle Trail is willing to abandon the trail behind the house, as long as [Christman] is willing to give in writing that he is not willing to close the road or the west side trail,” Benton said. “I don’t want to have to come back here in five years and talk about the same thing we’re talking about today.”
Benton, too, would like to see a detailed plan from the commission Tuesday. He said he hopes this will include a trail management plan for cleanup and maintenance, and a plan to more clearly define Bridle Trail hours, rules and routes.
“Those two things will show landowners that the county is serious about taking care of its property,” Benton said.
Legal questions remain unresolved, and neither party wishes to see the case in court.
“I’m not an expert on this stuff. But I am convinced I am an expert on my property rights,” Christman said. “I’m a citizen who in good faith bought a piece of property 27 years ago. I should have the right to say it’s getting out of hand.”
But an unrecorded easement and a long history of demonstrated public use complicate the legal terrain surrounding Christman’s property, and the Friends of the Bridle Trail believe it has a case for continued use.
“If that trail isn’t blocked off, this meeting next week all comes to a legal situation,” Christman said. “So I’m holding the line saying, ‘You make a decision, or I’m going to take you to the next level and we’re going to have the judge decide.’
“And I know which side he’s going to go on.”