Judge rules against hunters in Wyoming access case

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July 17, 2002

Sheridan judge bars access to old trail

Associated Press

SHERIDAN, Wyo. (AP) - A judge has ruled that the owners of a ranch have the right to prohibit public use of a trail across their property that has provided convenient access to prime hunting land for decades.

District Judge John Brackley's ruling last week closed off access to the Soldier Creek Trail across the Beckton Stock Farm west of Sheridan to those without permission from the ranch.

Brackley said he does not have the authority to declare the existence of a public road simply because the public has long used it. The trail leads to public lands managed by the Bighorn National Forest, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and state of Wyoming.

Last year, the ranch at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains filed suit against four Sheridan County hunters, alleging they trespassed.

The hunters argued they have a right to use the trail without permission because they considered it a prescriptive easement.

Brackley, in his three-page decision, ruled that the Sheridan County commissioners in November announced they had no records showing the disputed route was declared a public road.

No other records indicate Sheridan County ever claimed an interest in the disputed route or expended any funds for construction, maintenance or improvement of it, Brackley wrote.

The owners of Beckton Stock Farm and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association welcomed the decision.

"We're obviously very pleased with the results," said Spike Forbes, a trustee of the ranch with his brother, Cam; sister, Edith; and mother, Sally.

Cam Forbes added that they expect to continue to let people use the trail as long as they obtain permission.

Stock Growers Executive Vice President Jim Magagna said Brackley "upheld the long-standing principle that freely granted access does not result in a prescriptive easement. This decision is in the best interests of both the landowners and public."

Magagna said if the judge had ruled otherwise, it would have severely discouraged other landowners from granting access "out of a justifiable fear of losing an important private property right."

The dispute came to a head in September when the ranch locked a gate leading to the public lands. Hunters were asked to either use a new corridor or call for permission to use the existing trail.

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

Yeager has spearheaded efforts to keep the trail open to the public, while Durante is a board member for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, an outdoorsmen's group.

"We are obviously disappointed with the decision," Durante said. "The defendants never had a chance to personally present our facts to either our county commissioners or the judge in this case."

He added that the commissioners did not do a very good job researching documents and that his group had found many documents showing public use of the road for over 110 years.

"But they don't seem to matter," Durante said.
 
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