Diane Magone has continued to pound the drum at a steady pace regarding the nearly 6-year-old closure of the Cyr Iron Mountain Road. During the January Mineral County Resource Coalition meeting, she once again was on the agenda to keep the coalition members up to date on what is happening with its public access.
The Wheaton brothers bought the property in 2013 and then gated off the road which runs from Trout Creek to Lozeau. Magone contends that it is a historic road dating back to the 1870s, and it connects from St. Regis to Fish Creek and possibly all the way to Missoula. “It was a shortcut from the old mill to Quartz Creek,” she said.
Though the road is not identified as a county road or a U.S. Forest Service road, in the past it has been maintained by both groups. Through hours of research, Magone found that the road was built and maintained by the public with a right-of-way granted from Plum Creek to Stimpson Lumber. But, nobody has been able to find information as to whether it was a private or a public easement.
A few years ago, 150 local residents signed a petition to keep the road open, at least as an emergency route if Diamond Match road is blocked off. Also, the road was used by the Forest Service during the Sunrise Fire in 2017. The Forest Service does have an easement on segments of the road, but not in its entirety.
IN THE PAST, the Wheatons have been approached to keep the road open but they have refused to negotiate a compromise. The issue of private landowners closing off roads for public access is one of increasing concern. Magone recently reached out for help from Bill Geer, president of the Montana Wildlife Federation. The Wildlife Federation, along with Public Land/Water Access Association, are leading the charge to keep public access open to public lands.
In an open letter Geer wrote earlier this month, he stated that, “Putting up gates on public roads that lead to public land, can turn vast swaths of our National Forests, Bureau of Land Management and other public lands into private playgrounds.”
He also pointed out the current state law, where the fine for gating a county road is $10 per day. “That fine might have had teeth when it was set decades ago. But today, it’s not a deterrent to keep people from gating these roads....(people) who can afford multi-million dollar vacation homes in Montana would think nothing of paying $10 a day to block public access...,” he writes.
One step Geer would like to see is to “have a real, meaningful fine in state law. Lawmakers need to increase the fine to up to $500 per day, with no minimum.”
In a report, “Roadblocked and Landlocked” by the Montana Wildlife Federation and the Public Land/Water Access Association, it shows the increase in Montanans lost access to public lands. The report states that, “These closures have forced everyday Montanans into expensive, lengthy court battles to gain what is rightfully theirs — the ability to use public roads that have long been open to everyone. These rural roads have often for decades been used by ranchers to move livestock as well as by the public for recreation purposes.”
THOUGH THE search has not been easy for Magone, she said she will continue to scour county records and try to find evidence that will hold up in court to get the road back open. In an earlier report, she said that it is identified as a Forest Service road by signage on both ends, and contends it falls under the Montana statute as a “Public Highway.” According to the statute, “Once established, a road that has been used by the public must continue to operate as such until abandoned by order of the county commissioners.”
“That road has been used for over 50 years for logging, hunting, recreation, and was used by the Diamond International Mill until it closed in the 19080’s,” Magone said. “It’s part of Mineral County and belongs to the people. Not the government, not the county, if it was used by the public for a number of years it belongs to the public.”