From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 2, Number 5 - May 2, 2002
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Blatt responds to road closure fray

by Cat Urbigkit

Blatt responds to road closure fray

Landowner John Blatt has stayed out of the controversy that has erupted in the wake of his decision to close public access to the New Fork/Willow Creek Road as it runs through his private property.

The road has been used by the public, with Blattís permission, to access the Willow Creek Guard Station and surrounding areas of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Last fall, Blatt notified U.S. Forest Service officials of his intent to close public access, giving the agency one yearís notice.

Forest service officials approached the Sublette County Commission seeking assistance in keeping the road open. The commission hasnít provided assistance, but what eventually occurred is that William Belveal of Pinedale has submitted a petition to the commission, seeking to extend the countyís jurisdiction of the road through Blattís property. Belveal and his supporters view it as a public access need, while Blatt and his supporters view it strictly as a private-property-rights issue, with awesome precedent potential. The commission will eventually have to make a decision on the petition.

In the past, Blatt politely, and repeatedly, declined to be interviewed about the issue. Last Friday, he did grant an interview in addition to issuing a statement detailing his view.

First, hereís Blattís statement, printed in its entirety:

"Last November, I gave advance notice to the U.S. Forest Service of my decision to end public use of a private road that extends across my ranch from the Willow Creek County Road. The consequence is that the public will continue to use existing public roads to access public lands, rather than crossing my ranch. This decision was made in accordance with the terms of the right of way agreement that the U.S. Forest Service had negotiated with the prior owner of my ranch.

"Since that time, I have discovered that many people understand and support this decision, perhaps because they too have invested in land they want to protect, or because they fully respect the right of all of us not to open our private lands to public use. Others have raised questions that may require some response.

"Please bear in mind that nothing has been done to change public use of the Willow Creek County Road. The public road remains open to public use. Also, nothing has been done to cut off access to any lands of the National Forest. I simply wish to have the existing public roads, rather than the roads on my private land, used for public access to the National Forest.

"My decision to close the private road to public use was made after careful deliberation and with careful thought to the impact on any persons who have current plans to use this two-track trail across my ranch. That is one reason I delayed the closure until Dec. 1, 2002. I believe this should help avoid interference with anyone who has already made plans to use that road for the upcoming summer events or fall hunting purposes.

"People have pointed out that the public has a right to get to their public lands within the National Forest. I fully agree with and support that concept. The National Forest lands remain fully accessible to the public from many entry points on public roads.

"The New Fork Lakes Road Ė a county road Ė takes people directly from a paved highway to the lakes and campgrounds serving the general area accessed by the more primitive roads crossing my ranch. Instead of using an unmaintained two-track road across my ranch, there are existing two-track roads from New Fork Lakes across public lands that go to the same places. Just as before, people can go to the same locations by foot, horseback, ATV or 4-wheel drive vehicle. By driving about three miles east from New Fork Lakes on marked roads through the National Forest people can go to those same places without using private roads through my ranch. For those heading into the wilderness area on horseback, all of the same hunting areas and trails are fully accessible.

"If the existing roads spreading eastward from New Fork Lakes are not sufficient to serve the demand for public use of this area, the questions this raises is whether the Forest Service should use public funds to upgrade those existing public roads on public lands. I think that it makes no sense to spend large amounts of county tax dollars in the expensive process of trying to acquire new rights of way across private lands and trying to improve and maintain the primitive roads now existing across private lands to reach public land already served by public roads. While most local citizens who actually use this area are probably aware of the existing forest roads, I want to emphasize to those citizens unfamiliar with the facts that I have not cut off public access to any public lands.

"Taking a step back to consider the whole picture, everyone should realize that, when the Forest Service obtained a right to use private ranch roads that branch off the Willow Creek Road, it was with the express written understanding that no permanent right-of-way was created. The Forest Service just arranged for the use of the road that could be terminated upon one yearís notice. I believe that no one has disagreed that the current decision to divert traffic to existing public roads is fully consistent with the original written agreement.

"Like many other people, I could see the potential benefit of having public access to the lands that make up the Willow Creek Ranch. That is why I joined in the efforts with some of my neighbors a few years ago to acquire those lands specifically for the purpose of trading this land to the State of Wyoming in exchange for small parcels of landlocked state-owned land that are generally inaccessible and less usable to the public. Part of the purpose publicly discussed at that time was to provide additional, permanent access to the Bridger-Teton Forest across the Willow Creek Ranch. After considerable public discussion and difficult decisions, the public rejected that exchange. We all learned that there was not strong public support (in fact, some strong opposition) to completing the land exchange and making those lands public. It was then that I decided to invest in the land myself. Thus, the ranch remains in private ownership. With that history, it is particularly difficult to understand why members of the public see a need to spend large amounts of county tax dollars to try to acquire rights to use part of my ranch and create public access to private lands, when the no-cost alternative has already been rejected.

"I care about preserving the land of Sublette County. That is why I have been investing my money in open ranch lands and I have donated my time to organizations such as the Green River Land Trust to keep these lands open and scenic for the benefit of the public as a whole. I am not buying land so that I can carve it into subdivisions or change its ranching character. I would hate to see continuing pressure (which is coming from many groups and government agencies) to discourage the people who are trying to maintain operating ranches in the area, forcing more landowners to turn to subdivision of the land and other uses when ranch operations are frustrated.

"It is my intent to be a good steward of the land. I want to protect the open space views along the western front of the Wind River Mountains and do so while maintaining traditional ranching operations which support the local economy. I have added other lands to my ranch with the same objective. I do not want to see resource damage or abuse of those important lands. Since they have been placed in my control through the decisions made in recent years, I intend to use my judgement to protect the land in the best possible way.

"I welcome the input and suggestions of my neighbors in Pinedale. I think my decision to have public travel limited to the existing public roads is a correct decision. I hope that all others who respect private property rights and want to see traditional ranching operations and open spaces preserved will appreciate this decision."

In an interview last week, Blatt said the county should reject the petition. The Forest Service knew the public access through the private land was granted only with the landownerís consent, which could be revoked at any time. Now the county is being asked to in effect "take" the road through Blattís property, which would be an expensive proposition since he would have to be compensated for such a taking.

"This is a federal problem that they (the Forest Service) created," Blatt said. "Why should the county step in and pay?"

Blatt said the county would have to pay for both the road extension and the loss of value of Blattís surrounding land due to the road and having to provide the access.

"This is ridiculous," Blatt said, noting he has become the target of people he doesnít even know. Sublette County Commissioner Gordon Johnston, and other people as well, have publicly differentiated between Blatt and other ranchers because Blatt is a wealthy man who is not a long-time resident.

Blatt questioned who should decide who is worthy of having their rights protected. The principles of this nation currently call for equal protection under the law.

"Who is going to decide if this guy is worthy and this guy isnít?" Blatt questioned. "Iím worthy by my commitment to the land."

Itís his commitment to the land that led to his decision to close the road in the first place, he said.

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