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Rocky Mountain Front Road Closures

From The Great Falls Tribune - 9-8-2011

Written by

CHOTEAU A "private road no trespassing" sign on Road No. 380, also known as the Salmond Ranch Road, on the Rocky Mountain Front west of Choteau, surprised former Montanan Tim Callahan.

He first encountered the road closure in October 2009 while on a scenic drive in the area. At that time, there was just the sign saying the road was closed.

"We were out to see how close we could get to that part of the Rocky Mountain Front," Callahan said of the 2009 trip.

Callahan was back recently to show John Gibson of the Public Lands Water Access Association and Dave Van Tighem of Russell Country Sportsmen in Great Falls the sign. But now, in addition to the sign, a new gate with a lock makes clear that Salmond Ranch Road is closed.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Gibson said of the Salmond Ranch Road closing. "This is happening all over the state."

Indeed, on the Public Lands Water Access Association website, a map of Montana is dotted with at least 20 different balloons indicating cases where a private land owner has locked a road that the association maintains is public.

"Lots of land is changing hands, and we are concerned that roads are used as a public travel-way for as much as 100 years, and somebody comes along and says it is private," Gibson said.

What really angers Gibson and other members of the public who want access to public land is that they say government agencies tasked with managing that land are listless in the face of the roadblocks.

"I am getting tired of it. Here it is, a bunch of individuals try to fight this battle, and the agencies like the counties, the state, the (U.S.) Forest Service and the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) are not doing a damned thing to protect access to their land," Gibson said. "They are letting someone else do their work for them. They have the legal equipment, the money and everything they need to challenge this."

On that recent trip to the Deep Creek area west of Choteau, Callahan, Gibson and Van Tighem also found an ominous orange "Private Property No Trespassing" sign on the road going up the South Fork of Deep Creek. That road leads to the Gordon Dyal ranch.
Dyal is co-chairman of global investment banking at Goldman Sachs.

The road leads to what used to be Elizabeth, a settlement with its own post office from 1898 to 1910. Such settlements are important points when determining previous public use of a road.

"These people are closing travel-ways that were there before they were born. They belong to Montana and history," Gibson said. "People move in and close a trail or a road that was there before the land was patented, and suddenly they think they own it and you can't travel it anymore."

Attempts to reach both Dyal and Salmond on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
While the roads travel through privately owned land, they also lead to sections of state and federal land that provide access to some of the most scenic parts of the Rocky Mountain Front.

"There is no other access road into that land," Gibson said.

Callahan grew up in Montana graduating from Malta High School in 1969, and later from the University of Montana. Now he lives in Seattle where he practices law.
"I started hiking back there in the early 1970s," he said of the Deep Creek area. "That area is historically significant for me. I loved going into there."

Callahan also said previous owners were much more lenient when it came to access.
"I am saddened to see that the old-timers are disappearing and that it is becoming money property," he said. "Those old-timers would say 'as long as you close the gate and don't make a mess, it is OK to go.'

"I understand that times change, but it is sad to see," Callahan added.
After seeing the no trespassing signs, Callahan contacted the Public Land/Water Access Association Inc., a Billings-based organization with a mission to "maintain, restore and perpetuate public access to the boundaries of all Montana public land and waters."

The Salmond Ranch was once a huge, sprawling cattle empire on the Rocky Mountain Front that began in the late 19th century. It has since been divided up and handed down to succeeding generations of Salmonds. Two large parts of the ranch were sold one to Dyal and another to David Letterman.

Gibson said his research shows that, in 1930, Frank Salmond asked Teton County to abandon the road and provide a public easement over it. In 1988, Jack Salmond petitioned the District Court to rule the 1930 abandonment as "ineffective," and terminate the public easement.It is unclear whether the court ruled on the petition.
Teton County Attorney Joe Coble, who met with Gibson and Callahan, told them it is likely a title search would be necessary to determine the validity of the 1930 abandonment and the 1988 petition. Coble said the title search would help clarify property ownership and whether the initial abandonment and subsequent easement or the later petition would take precedence.

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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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