Judge Rejects Landowner's Bid To Build Road Into Wilderness

Wild habitat on north border of Yellowstone Park protected


Tim Preso, Earthjustice, (406) 586-9699


Bob Ekey, The Wilderness Society, (406) 586-1600


George Nickas, Wilderness Watch, (406) 542-2048


Jim Barrett, Park County Environmental Council, (406) 222-0723

A federal judge has rejected a landowner’s lawsuit to require nearly nine miles of new road construction to reach a private parcel deep within Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area. In an April 2 ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard W. Anderson concluded that existing trail and helicopter access to the landowner’s property was adequate to permit use of the property while preserving “the pristine and primitive nature of the wilderness.”

“This ruling protects one of our nation’s most outstanding wilderness areas from a misguided road proposal, but it also represents a victory for the entire wilderness system,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who represented The Wilderness Society, Montana Wilderness Association, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Park County Environmental Council and Wilderness Watch in opposing the landowner’s lawsuit. “The law does not require destruction of the public’s wilderness every time somebody buys property within a wilderness area and wants to drive to it.”

“This is an important decision that should have impacts way beyond the A-B Wilderness,” added George Nickas of Wilderness Watch. “In many parts of the country private land owners are demanding motor vehicle access across Wilderness lands. This ruling shows that managers can and should say, ‘no.’ Protecting Wilderness comes first.”

The court ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed in December 2000 by the Absaroka Trust, a trust established by Livingston resident James Sievers. The Trust sought to overturn a decision by the U.S. Forest Service denying a request to build a 20-foot-wide gravel road through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area to access a 120-acre private inholding property consisting of former mining claims. The Forest Service estimated that 8.6 miles of new road would be required to reach the property. The Trust sought the proposed road to log and mine the inholding property, and to construct and operate a hunting and fishing lodge. In its lawsuit, the Trust asked the Court to order the Forest Service to permit road construction and to require the taxpayers to pay all construction costs. The Court’s ruling rejected that request, finding that existing non-motorized access to the property was adequate under federal law.

“When you buy land in a wilderness area, you shouldn’t expect to drive to it – much less to have the taxpayers subsidize your road access,” said Bob Ekey, Northern Rockies Regional Director for The Wilderness Society.

The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, which adjoins the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park, is a 943,626-acre expanse of alpine lakes, sweeping tundra, steep canyons and dense forests. Elk, moose, and grizzly bears find refuge within its boundaries, and its 700 miles of trails provide outstanding opportunities for hiking, backpacking, horseback riding, and hunting. Several of the conservation groups that opposed the landowner’s lawsuit played critical roles in the campaign to obtain federal wilderness protection for the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountain ranges in the 1970s.

“In 1978, Montanans convinced Congress and the American people to protect the Absaroka-Beartooth country as wilderness,” said Bob Decker, Executive Director of the Montana Wilderness Association. “The protection given to one of Montana’s premier landscapes should not be weakened to serve the interests of a single landowner.”

“The A-B wilderness is the pride of Montana’s backcountry,” added Jim Barrett, Executive Director of the Park County Environmental Council. “Judge Anderson’s decision to deny the proposed road makes clear that the law creating the wilderness system is working well today for all of us and is a gift to future generations.”

Additional Resources

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people's health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.