In Wyoming, a road block for public access

A tangled web of lawsuits and land sales mean people trying to access a Lincoln County wilderness area could face trespass charges.

 

This story was originally published at Wyofile.com.

Lincoln County has no plans to restore a public access route it cut in 2014 to a 32,000-acre wilderness study area that’s the site of a decades-long environmental battle, the commission chairman said two weeks ago.

Acting to open a public access to the Raymond Mountain Wilderness Study area is not something that’s going to happen soon, Lincoln County Commission Chairman Jerry Harmon said. “Not in the near future,” he said of county plans to open a road that, until recently, the public used for years to reach public Bureau of Land Management property.

His position reveals how public access is being increasingly guarded and restricted as environmental conflicts simmer across the state. One could once travel freely from Highway 89 between Smoot and Cokeville onto the Coal Creek Road to the wilderness study area, home to moose, elk, deer and trout. The Coal Creek Road, also known as BLM Road 4216 and the IGO speedway, wends along Coal Creek between sagebrush hills, through some ranches, and along the edge of the rugged, forested roadless wilderness study acreage. It is one of several access points to BLM land in the area.

Using the road today would put one in jeopardy of trespass.

wyofilepublands-jpg
A hiker enters the Raymond Mountain Wilderness Study Area east of Cokeville. Lincoln County commissioners sold property nearby allowing the new landowner to block access to the popular Coal Creek Road. Officials have no plans to open access to the site of an ongoing environmental fight.
Photos courtesy of Julia Stuble/Wyofile.

The county restricted public access when it sold a strip of land to a longtime Idaho rancher in 2013 for at least $10. The commission chairman at the time signed a quitclaim deed giving up some county interests in about 100 feet of the Coal Creek Road. The deed went to Karma Loertscher, a Geneva, Idaho, resident and grandmother who recalls her horse-riding years with fondness.

County officials protected some county interests when they filed the quitclaim deed in 2014. At the same time they filed the deed selling their interest in the 100 feet — for $10 and other, unspecified, consideration — they got an easement through the property to access a county gravel pit nearby — but only for that use.

The 100 feet in question lie where the old Smoot-Salt Creek Highway ran starting in 1930. But the road, now called U.S. Highway 89, was shifted west some years back apparently leaving the gap in easements.

When commissioners sold that 100-foot-wide strip to Loertscher, they reserved the right to make Coal Creek a county road, a move that presumably would reestablish public access to the north end of the BLM route. They’ve chosen not to exercise that right. “We never made it a county road,” Harmon said.

The commission chairman said attorneys told him he couldn’t say much because of two ongoing suits — both testing who can collect information about the health of grazing allotments on public land. “We realized there are some lawsuits pending on a portion of it,” he said of the Coal Creek Road.

Two lawsuits tangle the situation

Lincoln County commission minutes from the meeting when the sale was approved are silent to the reasons behind the 2013 transfer of the old highway strip to Loertscher. But Lincoln officials knew the implications of signing over the property, according to an email revealed as part of a lawsuit against Western Watersheds Project, an environmental group, and employee Jonathan Ratner. Lincoln County senior planner Jonathan Teichert wrote an employee of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts on March 18, 2014, outlining the implications of selling the old highway strip, according to documents Western Watersheds said it obtained during the case.

“Lincoln County has deeded this 3+/- acre parcel to Karma Loertscher,” Teichert wrote to Catherine Rosenthal. “I am recording the Deed and Easement today. They will now have the ability to close the West Access of the Smithsfork Allotment to WWP. The easement is to benefit County owned property that is being used as a shooting range. Anyone else will need to get permission from the landowner.”

Lincoln County now requires property owners along the Coal Creek Road — there are several private and state parcels — to demonstrate they have legal access before it will issue a building permit. Landowner Dennis Austin, a retired research scientist with more than 30 years’ experience as a wildlife biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, is one landowner who had to get an easement from Loertscher.

“We built a cabin up there,” Austin said. “To get a building permit we had to get legal access. To get legal access I had to get an easement signed by Karma.

“She was pretty easy to work with,” Austin said. But those without permission might take heed. “Generally speaking there are signs up,” warning against trespass, he said. “And there have been signs up for several years now. Why Lincoln County hasn’t acquired that access through there, I don’t know, but they haven’t.

“Karma and the ranchers up there have some real issues with Western Watersheds,” Austin said. “That was the reason they put up additional signs.”

Commission chairman Harmon, limited in his conversations by his attorney, said commissioners believe in providing a route for Americans to get to their public lands. “We do feel strongly on public access,” he said. He acknowledged the ongoing environmental conflict: “Data collection or something is going on.”

Two ongoing suits include one that ranchers filed against Western Watersheds Project. In the second, Western Watersheds, the National Press Photographers’ Association and others last yearchallenged Wyoming’s 2015 law that made it a crime to collect environmental data on “open land” without permission. That action names Lincoln County attorney Joshua Smith as a defendant.  

The legal wrangling — one suit against the environmental group and the other against the state and county officials — have confounded the question of access over not only the Coal Creek Road but many miles of decades-old roads through federal property that may or may not be covered by easements.

Creating public access might cost Lincoln County some money for maintenance, chairman Harman said. “If we were to take it as a county road, we probably couldn’t afford it right now.”

BLM, Game and Fish tout public access

Access permission over the 100 or so feet of Coal Creek Road on Loertscher’s property remains in limbo. Beyond the strip of land in question, the BLM holds several easements where the Coal Creek Road crosses private property — including more of Loertscher’s. Regardless of the quitclaim deed and whatever signs might be posted, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the BLM recently touted public access along the Coal Creek Road.

Mist shrouds part of the Raymond Mountain Wilderness Study Area near Cokeville. The roadless area is rimmed by a BLM route where public access has been cut after Lincoln County sold its interest in an old highway roadbed to a rancher.
Photos courtesy of Julia Stuble/Wyofile.

That came after the two agencies upgraded the Coal Creek Road. “Hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts who recreate in the Coal Creek drainage between Afton and Cokeville will be pleased to know that habitat for one of Wyoming’s native cutthroat trout has been improved, as well as access to their public lands and the resources available there,” the two agencies said in anews release Jan. 15. “A road improvement project this past fall … not only improves access to public land, but also benefits native Bonneville cutthroat trout.”

The project replaced culverts where the road crosses creeks and also built a new bridge. The work was designed to reduce sediment washing into Coal Creek and the Thomas Fork of Salt Creek. The effort will improve habitat for native Bonneville cutthroat trout and remove barriers the old culverts created. More work is planned on nine sites along the road, the release said.

A BLM spokesman would not answer questions about the situation, nor provide personnel for an interview. Access remains unsettled, he suggested. “While the negotiations are ongoing with the two landowners, we will not be able to talk about this,” spokesman Tony Brown said in an email.

Wyoming Game and Fish spokesman Renny MacKay said Monday there are “some questions” about easements on the road. Rehabilitation was done on parts covered by public easements, he said. But people can’t just drive on it, Game and Fish believes. “Our understanding is the public needs to seek permission,” he said.

The machinations are designed to keep Ratner from investigating the condition of public land, the activist said. “Up until the time I started collecting data nobody had an interest in blocking access to this area,” he said. “That’s the reality of the situation. The whole effort to shut down access is an effort to stop me from providing oversight of the permittees on the Smiths Fork allotment.”

Western Watershed’s activity is the reason for closing the road Loertscher’s son, Richard, said. “They’re always causing trouble,” he said. “We get so much crap from them.” Conflicts over range health in the BLM’s Smiths Fork grazing allotment have been ongoing for more than a decade, including challenges that sought to put curbs on stockmen.

Richard Loertscher said people who recreate also damage the landscape.

“People go up there, they camp, they put ruts all over,” he said. “They kill the grass, they camp. There’s no repercussion on them. They [the BLM] take it out on the cattle, the permittees. We need to protect ourselves better.

“We’re honestly not wanting to shut people off,” he said. “Forever people have drove in there. The laws – our attorneys — [say] we can shut it off. We decided to do it for now.”

People who want to cross the Loertscher property can get permission by calling the head of the Smiths Fork grazing association, he said. “It’s all just our association — we’ve agreed to it.”

Karma Loertscher, owner of the easement, thinks the road is public. “The way I look at it, it’s a public road up there,” she said. “As long as they stay on public land and as long as they don’t come in and cut my fences. If they start cutting my fences, they better start fixing them or they’re going to find out the wrath of a woman.”

She could cut off public access, “if I wanted to,” she said. She couldn’t recall details of the easements. “I really can’t remember everything about it any more,” she said.

BLM maps show the route 4216 circling the north, east and south side of the Raymond Mountain Wilderness Study Area along a route approximately 40 miles long. The Raymond Mountain area includes 32,936 acres of BLM land, 1,329 acres of state land and 200 acres of private inholdings, the BLM says. Large parts of the Sublette Mountains there are forested and sagebrush hills are another landscape feature. The roadless area contains “outstanding opportunities for primitive and unconfined recreation,” the BLM says, including hunting moose, elk, deer and grouse, primitive camping, hiking, backpacking, nature study, sightseeing, fishing, trapping and horseback riding. It is one of the sites of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association is reviewing in its effort to reclassify Wyoming’s wilderness study areas.

Some people still use the road, however, including commission chairman Harmon. “It’s a road I use a lot,” he said. “I actually went hunting there last fall.”

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