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Montana Resident Speaks Out

There’s no doubt about it - the public is getting the short end of the stick.

As the Bureau of Land Management policy now sits, wealthy landowners are allowed to block access to vast amounts of public lands while simultaneously taking advantage of the BLM’s low cattle grazing fees.

And what’s the BLM doing about it? Nothing – as far as I can see.

I’ve had the opportunity to ask some fairly tough questions regarding BLM’s stance on landowners who install locked gates on roads that run through portions of deeded property and lead to vast amounts of public lands maintained by the BLM. Their response: We’re not in the business of determining road ownership.

Understood. But is the BLM in the business of maintaining lands for the public or has the federal agency begun maintaining lands for the private elite?

This issue hit close to home for me and other residents in Prairie County when a new landowner moved in and placed a locked gate on a road that had been used by the public and maintained by the county for over 40 years.

Scenic View Road may not be well known to those outside of Prairie County, let alone Montana. But its destination provides an absolute stunning overlook of the Terry Badlands, which happens to sit in the BLM’s Wilderness Study Area.

As long as I can remember, my family made it a tradition to drive our out-of-state relatives along the seven-mile dirt road, north of Terry, to show them the true beauty of Eastern Montana. Our visits to the Scenic View Overlook always left a lasting impression. What had been missed on the long drive along I-94 between Billings and Terry was witnessed at Scenic View Overlook. Beyond the picturesque golden-red scene of flat-topped buttes, gumbo mounds and sandstone cliff walls, the real lasting impact for most is the immenseness of the badlands. It’s hard not to become keenly aware of one’s own minuteness when standing before such created beauty, as the seemingly never-ending beautiful badlands appear to touch the horizon.

Unfortunately few roads throughout Montana have recorded easements. This fact has left county commissioners from Ravalli to Prairie struggling with road closures, as new landowners begin purchasing property and locking up roads. Most of these roads not only run through portions of deeded property but also lead to vast amounts of public lands. These roads, like Scenic View Road, were used by the public for years and maintained with tax dollars for just as long.

And what’s being done about it? Well, nothing really. No state legislation is being introduced because of the influence of powerful cattlemen’s’ groups, whose membership fears new legislation will negatively affect BLM leased allotments that are relied on by ranchers throughout Montana. The BLM continues to offer their well beyond reasonably low $1.35 per head monthly grazing fees to those who lock up public lands. And part-time county commissioners and county attorneys are left trying to litigate closures one road at a time.

So while the public loses out on little known places like the Scenic View Overlook, or portions of more well known places like the Missouri Breaks National Monument, landowners erect locked gates and effectively elect themselves as their county’s official gatekeeper.

Do officials at the Department of the Interior and the BLM agency that dwells within it, really believe landowners, who lock out the public from places like Scenic View Overlook, should be allowed to continue to lease BLM lands, enjoying the agency’s low grazing fees? Is there no consequence for those who so blatantly take on county, state and federal government?

At the heart of this, is the unfairness of the situation. While popular public local attractions, beloved by neighboring communities are being locked up, the BLM appears to quietly pat the backs of those rich landowners who jingle their keys in the faces of locals locked out of lands supposedly owned by all.

I guess the real question is this: Will anyone from the state or federal government step up to bring order to the Wild West’s road closure epidemic?

Gene L. - Terry Montana

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Scenic View Terry

Public Land/Water Access Association Inc. or PLWA, is a citizen group organized and operated under the Montana nonprofit corporation act.

Articles and Information on this site represent the opinion of the writer and are not intended as legal advice. Legal counsel may be needed in dealing with specific access situations and issues.
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