The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected a landowner’s attempt to build nearly nine miles of new road to reach a private parcel deep within Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area. In an March 12 ruling, the appeals court agreed with a lower court ruling that found 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. It 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.”
The court ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed in December 2000 by the Absaroka Trust, a trust established by Livingston, Montana, 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 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 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 district court’s ruling rejected that request, finding that existing non-motorized access to the property was adequate under federal law. The appeals court agreed with the district court’s ruling.
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.