Court rules ban on public access to trail stands

Associated Press
The Billings Gazette


CHEYENNE, Wyo. - The Wyoming Supreme Court has upheld the right of a ranch in Sheridan County to block public use of a trail that has provided convenient access to prime hunting land for more than a century.

In a decision issued Friday, the justices unanimously affirmed District Judge John Brackley's ruling in July 2002 that allowed the owners of the Beckton Stock Farm west of Sheridan - Waldo, William, Sarah and Edith Forbes - to close access to the Soldier Creek Trail, which crosses their property.

The trail leads to public lands managed by the Bighorn National Forest, Bureau of Land Management and state of Wyoming.

The dispute came to a head in September 2001 when the Forbeses, exasperated by gates being left open, locked off the trail. Hunters were asked to either use a new corridor or call for permission to use the existing trail.

The ranch owners filed suit against hunters John Yeager, Larry Durante, John Reilly and George Rogers, claiming they crossed without permission.

The hunters argued that the route was essentially a public road since it had been used by the public since the early 1890s.

Yeager and Rogers are licensed outfitters who have taken clients on the trail for more than 20 years. Durante and Reilly have used the trail for personal enjoyment for about as long.

In its ruling, the state Supreme Court held that a state law passed in 1919 effectively vacated the public status of any road which was not recorded and established by the pertinent county commission.

The justices pointed to the conclusion by Sheridan County attorney Matt Redle that county records do not show the trail was ever established as a county road.

Nor did the records show that the county had ever expended funds for construction, maintenance or other improvements.

"Accordingly, we conclude that the trail is not a public road," Chief Justice William Hill wrote.

The Supreme Court also upheld Brackley's refusal to allow the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, a sportsmen's group, to be a party in the case, saying a notice of appeal of his decision was filed after the 30-day deadline.

The justices also denied the contention by Yeager and the other defendants that they were entitled to a "prescriptive easement" allowing them access since the public had used the trail for so many years.

The court quoted an earlier case: "A property owner's failure to interrupt or object to the public use of his property for the statutorily prescribed period cannot be equated with prescriptive use."


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