From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 4, Number 14 - July 1, 2004
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

LaBarge Creek Road controversy: landowners not included

by Cat Urbigkit

The current controversy over the LaBarge Creek Road has some people baffled. They wonder where the controversy came from, and if an assortment of public agencies is so concerned about the road, why haven't the property owners been contacted about it.

Those people that are baffled are the private property owners whose land the LaBarge Creek Road traverses in Sublette County. The road is located on their private property and to date, no public right-of-way or easement exists. But the landowners have never shut down access to the public, nor even threatened to.

So what's the big deal? The big deal seems to be that an assortment of agencies, including two arms of federal government and county commissions from two different counties, have been talking about the need to make the road a public road. These groups are soon to have a big dinner meeting about it.

The landowners were not invited. For the last few months, the landowners have read in Sublette County newspapers that the Sublette County Commissioners have been talking about the road, publicly contemplated making it a county road and even threatened to condemn the road to declare it for public use. The commission said that it would write letters to the five landowners involved, seeking to learn if the landowners would grant easements for public use, but to date, those letters haven't been sent. The landowners have only read about their property in the newspapers. None of the commissioners have contacted them.

To understand today's controversy, we need a short history lesson. Back in the fall of 2001, Louisiana Congressman Billy Tauzin wrote a letter to the Bureau of Land Management complaining about overgrazing on Miller Mountain and about the condition of the LaBarge Creek Road.

Just a few months later, the BLM wrote letters to the five private property owners on the road in Sublette County, stating that the public had identified the road as a high priority for public access into public lands administered by the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service. BLM was seeking easements from the landowners.

Bob and Karen Harrower own the largest section of the road at issue. The Harrowers and other landowners met with the BLM and the Harrowers indicated they were willing to give an easement, provided the other landowners did so as well, but only if the BLM would guarantee it would maintain the road. The talks fell apart when they couldn't come to agreeable terms.

The BLM had sought an easement "in perpetuity" but the landowners wanted a shorter defined time period, so that if the agency didn't keep up its end of the bargain, the landowners could seek another resolution.

The Harrowers do have a land-use agreement allowing public use of the roadway in winter. That agreement is with the State of Wyoming and allows the road to be groomed for snowmobile use and for the public to use the groomed trail.

"I think that's something we could do with the BLM or Forest Service," Bob Harrower said in a recent interview.

The Harrowers have entered into these agreements annually since they purchased the property in about 1996. Part of the agreement calls for the state to post signs notifying the public that they are on private property and to stay on the trail.

Posting the private property is a fairly important issue, since several of the landowners have had theft or other illegal activities occur on their parcels. The Harrowers have had two experiences in which commercial rock buyers have taken rock from the Harrower property without authorization. These weren't situations involving picking up a few rocks, but taking semi-trailers in and hauling out tons of material from private property.

Although they've also come onto their property to find a new campfire ring and three camper trailers parked there, again without authorization, the Harrowers feel they've been pretty fortunate overall, Karen Harrower said. But these situations simply demonstrated the need for private lands to be posted.

"If the signs are there, they have to know they're on private land," Karen said. "That's why the signs are there. Of course, sometimes they tear the signs down too."

The Harrowers expressed frustration that they haven't been contacted by Sublette County Commissioners, instead reading about the controversy in the papers.

"The only thing we see is in the newspapers," Karen said.

The Harrowers said that in years past, timber and energy companies maintained the road, but with these uses greatly reduced on public lands in the area, their maintenance work has stopped.

"I'd hate to see the road go out," Bob said, "Then nobody could come up there."

The Harrowers said they've never prohibited any agency from conducting road maintenance work through their property, but the agencies have refused to perform maintenance without owing an easement or right-of-way.

The poor condition of the road in some areas keeps traffic slowed down, something the landowners appreciate. While traversing the road may be rocky for the public, the option is always there.

Bob pointed out, "We have never, ever hindered anybody, never threatened them, stopped them, nothing."

Louisiana businessman Bill Busbice owns the Spring Creek Ranch, which the LaBarge Creek Road traverses. Like the others, the county hasn't contacted him.

"I wish they had called me," he said, so that the ranch didn't have to learn about the issue through the newspapers.

Busbice said he's had problems with out-of-area recreationists failing to respect private property rights, from poaching elk on his property to threatening him on his own land. The result has been to post signs asking for the public to stay on the road as it crosses the ranch property.

"I don't think anyone wants to cut the local people off," Busbice said. "There is no intent for us to cut people off from using that road."

As for agreeing to grant an easement or right-of-way, Busbice said he wants to see what comes from the agencies, to see what their plans are before he takes a position. Of concern to him are payment for the right-of-way and the need to have an agreement for road maintenance as well, he said.

"I'm open minded," Busbice said about the possibility of granting an easement.

Matt Barbero is another private property owner on the road in Sublette County. He and his partner have met with BLM in the past and even agreed to grant permission for a public easement for the road in exchange for the road being graded twice a year and a few minor improvements, such as culvert replacement. But when one of the five landowners disagreed, the deal fell apart. Although the deal fell apart, it never impacted the public's use of the road.

Barbero said he hasn't been contacted by anyone about the road since then.

"I don't know why this ever started," he said. "No one ever said they were going to gate that road."

When asked if he were still willing to consider an easement deal, Barbero said, "absolutely," adding that he wouldn't agree to a deal unless there was road grading twice a year involved.

Barbero and his partner "have been willing, from the get-go" to grant public access in the form of an easement, but it has to be unanimous with all five landowners. Meanwhile, signs posting the private property aren't an offense to the public, but are requests that the public respect the rights of private property owners in the area.

Linda Zager said she participated in the discussion with the BLM about the road.

"It didn't get anywhere because there is this big distrust of the government," Zager said, and a big concern over road maintenance. Zager said she bought her LaBarge Creek Road property so that it wouldn't be developed, not to keep people from using the area. She said she'd prefer not to see the road improved because she'd rather the area not experience an increase in traffic.

"If they want to make it a county road, I won't be the one standing in the way," Zager said.

Clayton Lunde is one of the ranch managers on the Fox Ranch, which the LaBarge Creek Road goes through. He pointed out that in all the years he'd grown up on the ranch, nobody has threatened to shut off public access. But that doesn't mean that the ranch is interested in giving up the land in which the road sits, he said.

"Do whatever you want to do with the road," Lunde said, but don't expect the ranch to give up control over the land.

"That road's been there for over 100 years," Lunde said, without any public agency making a claim to it. He said there was interest in making the road a scenic byway to Afton, so having the ranch grant an easement for such an act wasn't going to happen, "not in any way, sort or form."

Lunde said right now the road is a backcountry route in which travelers need to plan on 20 miles per hour and taking their time. Even then, the ranch has five or six cows or calves hit every year. Allowing a public agency to take it over now, no matter how good the intention is, would set the stage for improvements to be made in the future, making the road available for faster traffic. The agency could also turn the road over to another agency in the future, Lunde said, and sometime in the future the road could be a paved state highway.

"We wouldn't go with that," Lunde said.

Lunde, like the other landowners, was frustrated about not being contacted about the controversy.

"If you've got a gripe or a bitch, come to the ranch and talk about it," Lunde said.

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