GeoCarta Has Moved

Oct 8, 2005

Montana Road Dispute Leads To The Courthouse

A 1917 U.S. Surveyor General's map may determine whether the public will have uninterrupted access to roughly 1/3 of the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. According the Havre Daily News, Bill and Ronnie Robinson contend that Bullwhacker Road, which crosses their ranch about 50 miles south of Chinook, Montana, is a private road. They have been requiring that the public seek their permission before using it to travel to the recreation area. Not so, says the Montana Wildlife Federation and the Public Land and Water Access Association Inc., which contend the road is public. At a meeting last Thursday, Bernard Lea, of the Public Land and Water Access Association, produced a copy of the 1917 U.S. Surveyor General's map, which he says shows the road following almost exactly the same route it follows today. Lea contends that under a 1866 federal statute, any road that existed before the adjacent land was granted to private citizens is to remain a public road. The Robinsons, who began requiring permission to use the road after gates were left open and people started trespassing on their property, contend the road shown on the 1917 map is not the same road in dispute today. The groups of hunters and outdoor enthusiasts say they will probably take the mater to court.

Until a judge decides the matter or some compromise can be reached, governments are not sure what to do. Blaine County does not consider the road a county road and has never maintained it. During a recent inventory, the Montana Department of Transportation noted the "No Trespassing" signs placed by the Robinson's and has removed the road from their maps.

People living in heavily populated urban areas may wonder how the public or private status of a road can be contested. However, in the sparsely populated west, many roads are infrequently traveled and poorly maintained. That and their often murky legal origins make these types of disputes fairly common.