Liberty Matters News Service, News
(LMNS May 25, 2021) The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado issued a strong decision protecting historic R.S. 2477 rights-of-way in the West. Decided at the end of last year, the court found that two roads in Garfield County Colorado, originally connecting historic homesteads along Dry Fork Creek and into the town of De Beque, were valid public rights-of-ways that had not been abandoned by the County.
In the early 1900’s, the landowners petitioned Garfield County to take control of the road and maintain the access, which not only serviced the landowners, but also provided public access to an area managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The private properties, as well as, the permits to the adjacent BLM lands were eventually combined under the ownership of the High Lonesome Ranch beginning in 1994. The Ranch provides high-end hunting and recreational opportunities to guests who pay for the exclusive experience. As described by the court:
“Mr. Paul R. Vahldiek, Jr. is an attorney from Houston. Id. at 64:2–15. He is the founder and sole proprietor of the High Lonesome Ranch, LLC and the chairman of its board of directors. Mr. Vahldiek owns sixty-three percent of a fifty percent interest in the Ranch. Id. at 63:2–64:1. The High Lonesome Ranch is a recreational operation that offers hunting (particularly big game hunting) fly-fishing, hiking, biking, and horseback riding. It offers luxury accommodation and meals prepared by internationally renowned chefs. A five-day, six-night big game hunting package costs around $10,000 per person, inclusive of meals, lodging, and other recreational activity. Id. at 72:17–73:21, 154:23–155:16.”
Mr. Vahldiek is the past chairman and current board member of the Western Landowners Alliance, which has endorsed the Biden Administration’s 30 x 30 program, and whose support is featured in the President’s new report, “America the Beautiful.”
The Ranch argued they believed the road was privately owned and therefore maintained locks on the gates preventing access by the public to the BLM holdings for hunting and recreation purposes. In April of 2016, the Ranch filed a case against Garfield County asking the court to declare the road private. Garfield County successfully defended the access right in the Colorado District Court, and in so doing established precedent for landowners and the public who depend on the historic RS2477 rights-of-ways across federal lands.
Garfield County has long been a strong advocate and defender of historic RS2477 rights-of-ways in the West, led by Garfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman, John Martin. A close read of their position set forth in the County’s “Federal Lands Natural Resources Coordination Plan & Policies,” bears this out. Additionally, Martin has been advocating for Congress to pass “The Historic Routes Preservation Act.”
The Court found that although the County had not consistently maintained the roads, this did not constitute abandonment, nor did the actions of the landowner to deny public access by locking gates originally erected for livestock control, meaning the historic access right was still valid today.
The Ranch was ordered to remove the locks on the gates that cross the road, and reimburse the County’s attorney fees which therefore provided unfettered public access to tens of thousands of acres of public lands.