Idaho county pursues forest right-of-way through farm ground
By John O’Connell
POCATELLO, Idaho — The Bannock County Commission has proposed to validate a mile-long, overgrown farm road through residential and agricultural land as a public right-of-way to access national forest, against the wishes of the affected private land owners.
Following a heated public hearing on Aug. 13, the commission tabled a vote, wanting more time to accept written public testimony and legal briefings. A second hearing has been scheduled for 1-4 p.m. Nov. 19 at the Bannock County Courthouse.
Roughly 100 people attended the initial hearing, both to voice support for maintaining access to the U.S. Forest Service’s Bell Marsh Creek area near McCammon and to denounce a perceived threat to property rights.
The right-of-way would pass through four private parcels, including a dryland farm owned by a small holdings company. The land owners emphasize two other public accesses to the recreation area exist within a mile of their land.
As it stands, they’ve dealt with litter, teenage parties, vandalism and fires started by catalytic converters. The land owners also faulted the county for sending a “threatening” letter as its first communication.
The county has offered no financial compensation for the right-of-way, contending it’s existed since the late 1940s. Bannock County’s general counsel, Ian Service, who recommended that the commission approve validation, argued a prescriptive easement exists simply because people have used the access for so many years. McCammon resident Michael Bartlett, for example, testified he’s used the road for hunting and family outings since the 1960s.
Service also emphasized that the access has appeared on several Forest Service maps, and “Bell Marsh” made a 1990 county list of 47 public-land accesses, though landowners consider it more likely that the general listing referenced one of the other accesses to the watershed.
T.J. Budge, an attorney representing a property owner, said the alleged right-of-way appears on no county land-use maps, as required by law.
Evidencing that the road isn’t public, Budge said it’s been gated for years, and neighbors have long sought permission before using it. He also noted that the landowners have all paid taxes on the property, with no easement factored into the county assessor’s calculations.
Rick Fellows, a partner in the holdings company, said validation of the access would impact 25 acres, and could place him in violation of an ongoing Conservation Reserve Program contract. Based on the county’s letter, Fellows said his title company pored through decades of records seeking evidence of an easement and could find none.
Backing the property owners, Idaho Farm Bureau Federation mailed 300 post cards to area residents advertising the hearing, warning recipients their land could be next.
Deb Tiller, recreation and trails supervisor for the Forest Service’s Pocatello office, explained the Bell Marsh issue originated when her agency asked surrounding counties to clarify their lists of active public land accesses. Service said Bell Marsh was one of about a dozen accesses that Bannock County has identified as being uncertain. He wouldn’t specify the locations of other questioned accesses.
Lava Hot Springs rancher Ken Andrus, a state lawmaker who chairs the House Agricultural Affairs Committee, fears a primitive road through his ranch may be among the yet-to-be named access targets. Andrus intends to file a public information request before the county seeks any additional right-of-way validations.