Ravalli County Property Rights Dispute
Families Pledge to Fight for Their Private Property
By Ammon Bundy
Facts & Events of the Upper Hughes Creek Private Property Dispute
For over 40 years the U.S. Forest Service and Special Interest Environmentalist Groups in Ravalli County, Montana, have attempted to destroy the right to private property with the ploy of public access. In an effort to diminish private property on the Upper Hughes Creek, federal agencies along with special interest groups are seeking to force a public access easement 60-foot wide through the middle of private fields, barns and other buildings. Here is a summary of the facts and history on the Upper Hughes Creek private property dispute.
Action Needed (see below)
In 1967 Ellie & Violet Cox purchased approximately 200 acres of property on the Upper Hughes Creek drainage in Ravalli County, Montana. This private property was established by U.S. Patent law dating back to the 1800s, before Montana was a State (A3-A4). The previous property owners mined and lived on the property and built a wagon trail into it for better access and to assist in their mining operation. Being a good neighbor, the property owners allowed some people in the community limited access to use the road to help enter the public area above their property. The road ended on the private property, and those allowed to use the road parked their trucks on the private property and walked or rode horses to the upper public area.
Sometime after 1950 the U.S. Forest Service closed off most of the public trails and roads around the private property, making the private road the most accessible way into the upper area. (A15). Due to the U.S. Forest Service closure of the public trails and roads, the traffic through the Cox’s property increased and some people began to go through the property without permission.
Several incidents occurred on the property that caused great concern and prompted the Cox Family to further secure their private property. Not only were some people accessing and using the road without permission, but several times the Cox family experienced theft and other damages to their property. On one occasion they entered the property and men were building a corral, which was to be used to hold horses for a hunting camp. Ellie and his son Wade informed the men that they were on private property and requested that they remove the corral and find another place to camp.
Several times the family would come to the property and find equipment, generators and other mining tools taken. On another occasion the owners saw an old wood cooking stove in the back of a truck in town that looked just like the one they had in a cabin on the property. When they got back to the property they found the cooking stove missing. Also, people were relocating the tailings from the mine, loading them into trucks and separating the gold for profit at other locations. On another occasion, Wade Cox came to the property and caught a man up in their sluice box digging through the minerals.
These incidents led the Cox family to the conclusion that a gate at the entrance of the property must be installed. In 1977, a gate was erected and has been maintained by the property owners ever since (42 years).
In 1982, Jennifer Cote, President of the Western Fish and Game Association (WFGA), a Special Interest Environmentalist Group (SIEG), began calling, visiting, and writing the Ravalli County Commissioners in an effort to force access through the middle of Ellie & Violet’s private property using the trail/road that the previous owner built. In an October 1982 letter to the County Commissioners she wrote: “An attempt to limit or close access to the area appears to be an attempt by a few individuals to control the area for their own purposes. We object strongly to this kind of situation.” (A2). Because of the continued persistence of the Special Interest Environmentalist Groups (SIEG), the Ravalli County Commissioners were compelled to review the subject and eventually the matter went to the State Court where an Order to Show Cause Hearing was held under Judge Wheelis in September 1984.
The main evidence that was debated in the hearing was an old county petition document, signed by the County Commissioners in 1900, adopting a recently constructed road. The document described the length of the road as “about 12 miles… from the Alta post office and then along the Hughes Creek to the Wood Placer Mining Company Claims.” The Wood Placer Mining Company Claims started at the private property line where the gate was placed (see map above).
Following the hearing, the suit against the property owners languished on the court docket with little activity. In October 1988, County Attorney John W. Robinson wrote to the County Commissioners: “I have done an extensive review of this file and have attempted to glean additional evidence beyond what was presented at an Order to Show Cause hearing…At that hearing, witnesses were heard and Journal entries regarding the Hughes Creek Road were entered in evidence.” County Attorney Robinson further wrote, “Judge Wheelis ordered that a restraining order would not be issued because of insufficient evidence.” Robinson then gave his legal opinion and recommendation on the matter: “It is my opinion that the State does not have sufficient evidence to open the road beyond the gate. I recommend that this matter be dismissed…” (A1).
On November 30, 1993, the then new County Attorney George H. Corn, in an effort to clean up the court docket, wrote a Stipulation and Order to the Ravalli County District Court stating that he does “hereby stipulate that this cause be dismissed with prejudice.”(A8) On the 2nd of December, District Court Judge Langton made an order to “DISMISS [the Hughes Creak case] without prejudice.” (A9). The Cox family believed that the issue was settled and hoped they could continue on their property without further molestation.
However, in April 2001, Ellie passed away and his son and daughter-in-law Wade & Charlene Cox, continued to live and prospect on the property. Several incidents occurred between Dave Campbell, a U.S. Forest Service Ranger, and Wade & Charlene Cox. Ranger Dave tried multiple times to access the property without permission, but each known time he was stopped by Wade or Charlene and told that he must get permission first before entering the property. Ranger Dave seemed almost religiously zealous to gain access through the property without permission from the owners. On one occasion the Cox family put part of the property up for sale, and Ranger Dave tried to get his friend to purchase the property so they could claim access.
The property was never sold to Ranger Dave’s friend but part of it was sold to Seth Pogue. In 2007, acting then as the new District Ranger for the West Fork District, Ranger Dave Campbell began communicating with Seth Pogue about the U.S. Forest Service purchasing the property. In a January 2007 letter to Seth Pogue, Ranger Dave Campbell wrote: “the property you own in Hughes Creek is still very much of interest as a possible acquisition for the Forest Service. The fact that it is surrounded by National Forest makes it very desirable.” He goes on to write, “As I mentioned when we met with County Attorney George Corn…it is our intent to pursue the removal of the gate to allow public access.”
Ranger Dave then attempts to intimidate and coerce Seth Pogue into selling the property to the U.S. Forest Service. He informed Seth that the property will be worth less once they force access through his private property and that he would be wise to sell the property to the Forest Service before they begin to force the issue. At the end of the letter Ranger Dave also proposes that if Seth did not want to sell the property entirely, he could “see a potential acquisition allowing public access with you [Seth] retaining the parcel at the end of the road.”
Seth Pogue was disgusted by the manipulation and intent of Ranger Dave and decided not to sell his property to the U.S. Forest Service (A5).
As you may predict, Ranger Dave continued to pursue the issue and successfully motivated County Attorney George Corn to resurrect the case that was dismissed by Judge Langton in 1993. It is not clear what motivated County Attorney George Corn to flip his position and pursue the case when earlier in 1993 he motioned the court to “dismiss the case with prejudice,” meaning the case could never be opened again (A8).
George Corn does admit in a 2009 letter to the County Commissioners, that “the matter next came to my office in…2006 when West Fork District Ranger Dave Campbell [Ranger Dave], discussed with me whether the Commissioners would be interested in litigating the matter again.” He went on to write: “As you may know, the Forest Service has a long standing interest in the road beyond the locked gate… In response to his [Ranger Dave’s] suggestion that the County again sue over the matter, I discussed with Dave the possibility of the Forest Service litigating the issue on behalf of the County.” (A11).
After these communications, County Attorney Corn, in an effort to find more evidence to support the wishes of Ranger Dave, contacted Gary Evans of the Bitterroot Research. Corn reports that Mr. Evans told him “there were many contradictory documents regarding this road which had a complicated history.” Mr. Evans then joked “that the only thing any expert could probably swear to was that a county road starts east of the Alta post office.” In the 2009 letter, County Attorney George Corn also misrepresented the facts to the County Commissioners by stating, “I prepared a motion to dismiss WITHOUT prejudice [emphasis added],” when in fact he motioned the court to dismiss the case WITH prejudice. (A8)(A9) He further explained in his letter, “One of Dave’s [Ranger Dave] comments was to the effect that since the Forest Service had such a large interest in seeing the gate removed it was probably better for its attorneys to take the lead in this matter.” (A11)
During George Corn’s investigation of the Hughes Creek matter, he was told by many long-standing community members that the facts and history are complicated but lean towards supporting the property owner’s rights. In fact, in the 2009 letter, Corn wrote that Mike Wiles, the Roads Superintendent at the time; “reviewed the history of the matter with me…he did not believe it was in the County’s interest to try to litigate the matter again.”(A11)
As noted earlier, Mr. Evans also indicated that the history was too unclear to prove where the county road even started and that no expert could honestly testify to the facts correctly. Even with all the advice given and lack of evidence to support that the county road went beyond the private gate, County Attorney Corn, motivated by some unknown reason, continued to waste the taxpayers’ funds and further pursue the issue by advising the County Commissioners to reopen litigation.
Several official documents strongly indicated that County Attorney Corn was in collusion with U.S. Forest Service personnel and possibly other extreme Special Interest Environmentalist Groups (SIEG), in conspiring to take private property owned by the Cox family and others who had acquired land in Hughes Creek drainage. And to further motivate the County Commissioners to adversely act against the property owners, after communication with George Corn, “Gary (sic) [actually Barry] Paulsen, Acting Forest Supervisor of the Bitterroot National Forest, sent a letter to the Commissioners offering assistance in removing the gate.” In official documents, Corn also acknowledges that he was in communication with; “a member of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Club,” another SIEG organization (A6)(A11).
It was around this time that Jay & Tracy Bugli began the acquisition process to purchase a portion of the Hughes Creek property from Wade & Charlene Cox. However, before they made the purchase, Jay inquired on the matter of the road with County Commissioner, Greg Chilcott. Commissioner Chilcott informed Jay that “the county has no interest in pushing the matter, that they had plenty of other issues to deal with.” Jay moved ahead and purchased the property (A16).
Due to the lack of action, it appears that the County Commissioners did not take the bait County Attorney George Corn was giving. Sometime during Corn’s attempt to push the commissioners towards the will of the U.S. Forest Service and the SIEG organizations, George Corn was voted out of office. He was replaced by Bill Fulbright, who remains the current Ravalli County Attorney today. Ranger Dave Campbell, the U.S. Forest Service and the SIEG organizations took a significant blow when George Corn was not re-elected as the County Attorney. It took them several years to regroup and make their next move against the Hughes Creek property owners.
For nearly a decade after George Corn was removed from office, the property owners in the Hughes Creek area peacefully used and benefited from their private property without threat or intimidation from the U.S. Forest Service or SIEG organizations. Then out of the blue, each of the property owners received a letter in the mail from the Ravalli County Commissioners, dated January 14, 2016 (A10), informing them that the County Commissioners will be holding a public meeting on January 26. The letter stated, “The purpose of this meeting is to discuss the locked gate on Hughes Creek Road…” Interestingly enough the County Commissioners also informed the landowners that they had “invited staff from the Bitterroot National Forest Service…[to] be present.”
After some digging and communication, the property owners noticed that the newly elected County Commissioner, Jeff Burrows, was leading the charge to raise the ugly head of the almost dead Hughes Creek access dispute. In a need to understand why Commissioner Burrows would regurgitate this old issue, the property owners began an investigation of their own. They discovered that Jeff Burrows was the next door neighbor to Dave Campbell (Ranger Dave). They also discovered that two businesses are registered to Jeff Burrow’s residence. One by the name of Wildfire Rentals and Sales, Inc. and the other using the name of Wildfire Development Company.
Both of these businesses show that their significant income is based entirely on contracts from the U.S. Forest Service (A7). Additionally, Jeff Burrows has a degree in environmental engineering and speaks the same language and holds the same beliefs as most in the U.S. Forest Service community and the Environmentalist Special Interest Groups (SIEG). Also, during this investigation the property owners uncovered potential evidence that Ranger Dave Campbell was a member of at least one SIEG organization by the name of Public Land Water Access Association (PLWA).
The PLWA has gained a stout reputation for diminishing private property owner’s rights through legal and political coercion, including threatening local representatives with lawsuits if they do not act according to their agenda. They are funded by wealthy liberals who champion the socialization of the private property in the United States. Fronting as a bunch of old guys who just want to do a little fishing, in reality the organization is an extreme liberal firm made up of mostly retired Forest Service and Fish & Wildlife personnel and environmentalist lawyers.
The PLWA hypocritically attacks those who own private property, meanwhile working with the U.S. Forest Service, BLM and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in closing to date over 11,000 miles of public roads in Montana, including 7 roads or trails on the Hughes Creek. The PLWA’s focus has been to declare that private roads on private property belong to the County, and then through manipulation, coercion and political maneuvering influencing the County Attorneys and/or Commissioners to force access into the private property.
Groomed by the PLWA and Ranger Dave Campbell, County Commissioner Jeff Burrows in the 2016 meeting told the Hughes Creek property owners that there was “new case law that set a precedent favorable to the removal of the gate.” When the property owners asked what case he was talking about, they were informed that it was the “Letica v. Anaconda Deer Lodge County case.” Unbeknown to Commissioner Burrows, the attorney on that case representing the property owner was also Jay & Tracy Bugli’s attorney and he was present at the meeting. He informed the Commissioners that in most aspects the property owners prevailed in that case and “the only thing left to be legally decided was how much the Anaconda Deer Lodge County is going to pay the private property owners in damages.” Commissioner Jeff Burrows appeared to be flushed by the coincidence and comment of the Bugli’s attorney, but soon gained his composure and continued to push forward with the agenda to force access into the Hughes Creek private property. (A17)
It is good to note that the PLWA was highly involved in the Letica vs. Anaconda Deer Lodge County proceedings, and titled the case on their website as “Major Victory” when the County Commissioners (highly influenced by the PLWA) forced open the private gate on the Letica’s property at Modesty Gulch. Now the Montana State Supreme Court has ruled against the County and punitive damages to the private property owner for the unlawful destruction committed by the County Commissioners are being litigated. After this Supreme Court decision, favoring the private property owner, the PLWA’s website reported “This victory was short lived” (A18).
With knowledge of the current Montana Supreme Court ruling and the possible liability to the County, Commissioner Burrows still influenced the other Commissioners to move forward with reviewing the Hughes Creek matter, including a site visit and a survey of the boundaries. The official Ravalli County Road Viewer’s Report reads, “On the afternoon of October 11th 2016, we the appointed road viewers, County Commissioners Doug Schallenberger, Road and Bridge Department Supervisor Dusty McKern and Planning Administrator and County Surveyor Terry Nelson conducted an onsite examination.” They go on to report, “This road is an existing petitioned county right of way…up to the locked gate [emphasis added].”
Further the report reads: “There is no indication that vehicles can get to the end of the mining claims…The road is never anticipated to be improved or maintained by the County. Also, there does not appear to be anywhere that access to Forest Service could be made from the road beyond the East boundary of MS 5898.” Towards the end of their report they give their opinion: “It is the viewer’s opinion that the road is in poor condition and has very limited potential of providing access to future development. There also is a County Road Map dated April 7th, 1965 signed by the County Commissioners declaring this point [the gate] the ‘end of Co. road J.2-71 & 191 [emphasis added].’” The report includes: “Therefore it is the recommendation of the viewers that the road be vacated as requested.” (A13)
After the property owners requested the County officials to vacate only 4/10 of a mile of the disputed road — as recommended in the viewers report and placing the end of the petitioned county road at the same location as noted on the County’s 1965 road map — an optimistically final hearing on the matter was scheduled in January of 2017. Going into the meeting the property owners were happy and hopeful that the matter could finally be put to rest and they could instead direct their lives and energies toward their families and livelihoods. But during this 4-1/2 hour meeting they were blindsided by a barrage of professionals from the U.S. Forest Service and SIEG organization who argued that “the Board [of Commissioners] (due to Montana statute) may not abandon a county road or right of way used to provide existing legal access to the public land and waters…” (A19).
It should be noted that Montana statute 7-14-2615 does not apply if the road is not a public/county road. The upper Hughes Creek roadway, behind the gates, has never provided legal access to public land or waters. The language on the petition in 1900 makes it clear that the County road goes “to the Wood Placer Mining Company Claims.” The private gate is placed to the Woods Placer Mining Company Claim (A25). Also, as one landowner and long-time resident of the area stated at a public hearing, “Why would a mining company petition for a public road through the middle of their mining operation?” Further evidence that the road behind the gate was never a public road is provided by the fact that there are NO road easements on the deeds of the property behind the gates. There are, however, easements on the deeds of the property below the gate, along the public portion of Hughes Creek Road (A16).
No matter what the property owners said in the hearing, as one man put it afterwards, “It appeared the County Commissioners had made their decision before the hearing even started”. During the hearing the SIEGs continue to use the term “about 12 miles from the Alta post office” over and over again, not mentioning that in the same sentence it also says “TO THE WOOD PLACER MINING COMPANY CLAIMS”. At the end of the hearing the County Commissioners voted that the entire road past the gate was a county road and ordered the gate, after 42 years, to be removed. The PLWA’s website titles the decision, “Victory” (A20).
Shocked, flabbergasted and feeling deceived and set up by County officials, the property owners were beside themselves. Unwilling to allow this devastating blow to take precedent against private property owners, Lola Grenfell kept digging and became aware that boxes of old records on the Hughes Creek area were being stored in the County building attic. However, when she went to inquire of the boxes, she was denied access to the records.
In a July 19, 2017, memo, Glenda Wiles, County Commissioner Administrative Assistant, wrote this about communicating with Lola in January 2017: “…I went through the archived list and found 5 or 6 boxes listed that might contain information on Hughes Creek. About this same time we had an issue of bats in the attic and through an order by the U.S. Dept of Ag [the same department as the U.S. Forest Service], employees were not able to go into the attic…I advised Lola of that information and told her when we could re-enter the attic I would have the boxes brought down [emphasis added].” Further she wrote what Civil Counsel [Deputy County Attorney] Dan Browder said when he found out that files on Hughes Creek were about to be given to Lola: “…he indicated to me he would like to see what I found, and mentioned the litigation issue and that it was important that he review the file prior to releasing its contents to the public.” (A21)
Over six months went by and apparently Dan Browder had still not authorized releasing the records. On July 13, 2017, Martin S. King, the Hughes Creek Property owners’ attorney, wrote a stern email to Dan Browder. In this email he wrote: “…my clients were informed by Glenda Wiles that she had an additional box (or boxes) of documents concerning Hughes Creek Road that she had apparently been holding for inspection…Our clients asked to review and copy said documents and their request was denied apparently ‘because litigation was pending’. Litigation or not, documents in the possession of the county, except possibly attorney client communications, are public documents and need to be made available to my clients immediately.” He finished the email by writing, “Please advise when my clients may review and copy said documents.”
On July 19, 2017, the documents were reported as given to Lola Grenfell, just days after Mr. King warned Dan Browder that it was unlawful to withhold the documents from the public (A22). Because of the length of time in getting the documents, Upper Hughes Creek property owners were not able to use the evidence found in the boxes when litigating the matter in the State Supreme Court.
Note: The results of the State Supreme Court where as expected; they pushed the matter back to the County Board of Commissioners stating that the court did not have jurisdiction to overturn the Commissioners decision on the road and that the Commission have been given the authority by the people in the County to decide these matters (A23).
Several important discoveries were found in the attic boxes that the Department of Agriculture “quarantined” and Dan Browder held for over a half a year. These new documents together with the existing evidence (including a map) soundly prove that the Alta post office was located over a mile further downstream from the location that was testified to and used by the Commissioners to make their decision in the January 2017 hearing (A24)(A29). Also, the old road route was made much more clear and showed that the old road wound back and forth through the valley making it much longer than the current road. Additionally, documents indicate an old eight mile marking point, when the current road is only 6.2 miles at that same point (A26).
All of this evidence conclusively proves that the “about 12 miles” and “to the Wood Placer Mining Company Claims” are the same location or before the gate (A25). Other documents show the county road going to the gate location and then indicate only a trail going beyond the gate location. Another document from 1904 stipulates the county road requirement before a road can be petitioned for acceptance. The road (or then trail) after the gate location did not meet the county requirements for acceptance, but the road before the gate location did. This information, from both the attic and elsewhere, proves by overwhelming and convincing evidence that the road beyond the gate was never a county road and no public easement has ever been established.
In the Summer of 2017, the County Commissioners and County Attorneys had a meeting to discuss the legal action they were going to take against the Hughes Creek property owners. The property owners heard wind of this meeting and all of them showed up. During the meeting the property owners petitioned the Commissioners to review the new evidence that was previously being withheld from them in the attic of the County building. When Jay Bugli informed County Commissioner Chilcott that they had new evidence, information that was conclusive, and that they wanted a new hearing, the Commissioner replied by saying; “The matter is closed and a new hearing will not be granted”. Even as two legal cases worked their way through the District Court and the Montana Supreme Court in 2017-2019, the Board of Commissioners have refused to reconsider the issue and the historical and legal documents that the property owners discovered after the Commissioner’s January 2017 decision.
As Debra Patterson, a local freelance writer noted, “Even more incomprehensible is the fact that their legal counsels [Dan Browder] have advised that, even if they made a wrong decision it is now law.” (A28) Property owners have since officially requested a hearing to present the new discoveries and facts. They believe that the documents from the County building attic leave the matter with no argument and will force the Board of Commissioners to reverse their misinformed decision. To this date a hearing has not been granted and Commissioner Jeff Burrows has voiced several times that “an order will be given to remove the gate to force the easement through the property.” The County Sheriff has said, “I will have no choice but to enforce the order.” The property owners have pledged that they will continue to fight to insure that their private property rights are protected.
It is the author’s opinion that the U.S. Forest Service and the SIEG organizations, in an effort to get something that does not belong to them, have abused the Ravalli County republic form of government for long enough. For four decades the Hughes Creek property dispute has been lingering on at the expense of the private property owners and the taxpayers. The corruption and bias against the property owners is extensive from both County Officials and those who already claim over 90% of the land mass in the area (the U.S. Forest Service).
When will enough be enough? Will the U.S. Forest Service ever be satisfied until it has consumed up all the private property around its domain? Will it continue to use usurped power and influence to manipulate the only remaining from of republic government the people have in the area (the County)? The entire purpose of a County Official is to protect the rights of the people, including and in particularly, private property. Now in some convoluted manner, Count Officials have allowed themselves to be manipulated into assisting the takers rather than being the protectors.
To say that public access to public land trumps private property rights, is also to say that any person walking down the road has a public right to enter your home. Maybe the County Commissioners should force everybody’s private property, public? Then the public could go anywhere they want and not be restricted in any way. They could go into backyards, homes, private buildings and so on. How great would this be for public access, hunting, fishing, hiking, camping and environmentalism?
But then where would people go to be secure, to be private, to be free, to do as they wish as long as they don’t infringe upon another’s rights? Where would they go to rest, to think, to raise their children, to do business and to provide for themselves and to live? Would not this kind of public access create chaos, unrest and subvert peace? The security of private property IS THE FOUNDATION to the stability of any nation. To diminish private property is to destroy everything that is good in any society, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
For Ravalli County Officials to allow this assault on private property owners to continue, is to destroy the American dream in the County. I urge all property owners in Ravalli County to stand together and protect the few that are now being attacked so that you later do not fall victims of the same.
Ravalli County Board of Commissioners (BOC) should immediately set a hearing date to review the new evidence found in the County building attic in conjunction with all the other evidence and make a firm and conclusive decision to protect private property owners in the County from the U.S. Forest Service and any Special Interest Groups that desire to take what belongs to someone else, particularly the Hughes Creek Properties.
|Email Greg Chilcott
|Email Chris Hoffman
|Email Jeff Burrows
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