Proactively Protect your Investment and Property Rights
Judge Rules that Historically Private Agricultural Service Roads are Open to All Public Travel.
Recently, the United States District Court for the District of Colorado ruled in favor of Garfield County that historically private agricultural service roads, located on property owned by the High Lonesome Ranch, are “public highways.”
These roads are rough, unpaved double tracks and have been treated as private for decades upon decades. In his ruling, federal judge Brooke Jackson ordered the Ranch immediately to unlock a gate where the Ranch, prior owners, the BLM, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Garfield County believed the public road ceases and the private road begins. The locked gate had been in place since at least 1972 and likely for decades before that. The public had not used the roads or objected to the privacy of these roads for decades. A prior Colorado state court decision from the mid-1980s ruled that a large part of the road was private, but Judge Jackson’s ruling contravenes even that prior court decision.
This is an important case for anyone who cares about conserving public and private lands in the West. The district court’s decision raises the troubling prospect that thousands of private service and access roads, four-wheel-drive trails, and other unimproved dirt tracks across both public and private lands could be declared public highways. Such unfettered access will threaten effective conservation management of these wildlands and jeopardize the Ranch’s substantial investment in its mission of landscape-level conservation. Unmonitored, this access could also threaten public safety. Garfield County admitted in court that it lacks funds to maintain, improve, or police the service roads the court suddenly declared to be county highways.
According to its website, Garfield County hired a Land Acquisitions Manager in 2014 to research and inventory existing public land access points and easements. The County states that “In most cases, the reservation date for private land is the date a homestead certificate was issued. If the route existed prior to the land being reserved, the County could make a claim to it.” But trial testimony showed that the public has always had access to BLM land adjacent to the private Ranch property by ATV, horseback, and on foot, and still does today.
The district court’s ruling contradicts the commonly held community understanding, dating back nearly a century, that the service access tracks in question are private. The Ranch has appealed the decision to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and is confident that a review of the case will demonstrate that the district court’s decision is contrary to longstanding legal principles that protect private and public property rights. The Western Landowners Alliance (WLA) is currently organizing an amicus brief on behalf of landowners West-wide in support of the appeal. To learn more and to help support the effort, contact WLA's executive director, Lesli Allison at: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit their website at: www.westernlandowners.org.
The High Lonesome Ranch, which sits along the Western Slope of the Colorado Rockies, is committed to ensuring this case does not interfere with its efforts to restore, conserve, and steward its large western landscape. With the Ranch’s permission, we at Dufford Waldeck want to make you aware of this issue taking place in Garfield County so that you can proactively protect your investment and property rights.
By Sam Starritt