Will county defend public land access?
Hunters hoping to explore public land at the very far northwest boundary of Teton County are concerned by landowners’ attempts to limit access to a county road.
The road, West 14500 North off Highway 32, which appears on the official county road map, leads to a piece of land at the confluence of Badger Creek, Bitch Creek, and Teton River. Earlier this year, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management purchased the 762-acre property, formerly known as the Teton River Confluence Ranch, for $4.19 million. The land, which is prime habitat for cutthroat trout and birds of prey and a crucial link for elk and mule deer migration, is in Idaho Hunt Area 62.
“It’s a great chunk of land out there and we want people to use and enjoy it,” said Idaho Fish & Game Conservation Officer Rob Howe.
On Oct. 2, a hunter reported to IDF&G that a landowner to the south of the road had posted “No Trespassing” signs on land owned by the State of Idaho. The hunter also inquired about the “No Trespassing” sign that was at that time posted on a locked gate blocking W14500N, which appears on the Teton County GIS map as a public road.
By Oct. 9, the county had responded and cut the lock. Now the gate is closed but unlocked and the “No Trespassing” sign has been removed, although bright orange private property markers surround the thoroughfare.
As the local conservation officer, Howe is often the person who gets called about trespassing issues. He confirmed that he would not be issuing any criminal trespass citations for people found accessing W14500N. However, with the new trespass law that the Idaho Legislature passed this year, property owners can still pursue civil charges for people they consider trespassers.
The land to the north of the road is owned by Jonathan Fenn and has been in a conservation easement with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation for over a decade. Fenn told the Teton Valley News in an email that there has never been public access to his or his neighbor’s property and that the gate in question has been in place, closed, and posted with “No Trespassing” signs for 25 years.
However, Teton County Resolution 092302, adopted Sept. 23, 2002, named the road a public right-of way. The resolution, signed by then-commissioners Mark Trupp and Ron Ramirez, states: “Such gate may be latched but shall not be locked to impede public access. Those persons owning land which is adjacent to the Corrected Road shall be permitted to place signs on their property which indicate such property to be private, but shall not place signs which would imply that the Corrected Road is private nor that public access to the same is restricted.”
Sarah Wheeler, the public affairs officer of the BLM Idaho Falls District, confirmed that the bureau does extensive research to ensure public access is available before it acquires land.
“It is our understanding the road in question is a county road based on information attained through title searches and the county road easement research,” Wheeler said.
Fenn’s attorney, Sean Moulton, sent the county a letter requesting the history and record of survey for the road. Prosecutor Billie Siddoway said that the gate will remain unlocked for the time being, until the county has a “complete and accurate assessment of the access rights.” As of Oct. 31, Siddoway had not been in contact with the BLM to confirm its research.
Rob Parkins, the public waters access coordinator for the national advocacy organization Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, has been on the phone nonstop with public servants and sportsmen since he first caught word of the gated road two weeks ago. Parkins sent a letter to the Teton Board of County Commissioners requesting a public meeting to address the issue.
Backcountry travelers can use mapping applications like Gaia and OnX, as well as the county GIS map, to confirm that they’re on public ground. Despite that, Parkins said he’s concerned that casual users would be deterred by “No Trespassing” signs, even if they refer to the surrounding land and not the road itself.
He said that public access issues were a growing concern for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, especially in Idaho, and cited an incident in the Boise foothills where property owners recently installed gates on a U.S. Forest Service road.
“I support private property rights,” Parkins clarified. “But those 760 acres are part of the 640 million acres that are ours. It’s invaluable property as far as access; it’s productive bird and deer and fish habitat, and is also an opportunity for people who aren’t sportsmen to get out into nature. We need to keep it open and accessible.”