Printed on: December 29, 2012

Custer, BLM settle road dispute

But local leader says the war with federal government isn't over

By Nate Sunderland
nsunderland@postregister.com

Two federal agencies announced a settlement with Custer County on Friday following a nearly two-year dispute over a closed road on federal land.

The Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Bureau of Land Management characterized the settlement as amicable.

But Custer County Commission Chairman Wayne Butts disagreed.

"We certainly never said we would never (challenge) anything on BLM land again," Butts said. "We fully intend to challenge federal land (authority) again and again, whether it be the Forest Service or the BLM.

"Are we going to allow the federal government to take any more roads from us? Absolutely not."

Despite those comments, both sides have agreed that Herd Creek Road, remotely located some 35 miles south of Challis, will remain closed.

Custer County agreed not to interfere with federal lands, and, consequently, the federal government will not sue the county for trespassing.

The BLM closed the road in 1999 to protect an adjoining wilderness study area.

County officials pushed to reopen Herd Creek Road during the summer of 2011, arguing the BLM did not properly notify the county before closing the road and threatened to remove a barrier blocking motorized access.

In response, BLM sought a temporary restraining order to prevent the county from reopening the road.

The BLM feared Custer County officials would trespass on federal land, Butts said.

"We did not trespass, so we asked the court to make (the lawsuit) go away," he said.

In October, U.S. Chief District Judge B. Lynn Winmill approved a joint motion to put further proceedings on hold so both sides could negotiate a settlement.

In an October statement to the Challis Messenger, Butts said a settlement would allow the county to renew the fight in the future.

"We hope that efficient dismissal of this case will allow the county to better address its citizens' interests," Butts said, "in some future setting that will allow a more favorable range of outcomes."

Custer County Attorney Paul Turcke could not be reached for comment Friday.

Despite the county's assertion that future battles are on the horizon, a joint news release Friday stated that the settlement had resolved the dispute.

"I am pleased that Custer County has agreed to work together with

federal land managers

to avoid disputes over

the management of federal lands," Justice Department spokesman Ignacia Moreno said in the news release.

Under the terms of the agreement, "Custer County has agreed to refrain from any on-the-ground action affecting roads and trails on federal land ... the county further agrees it will not interfere with any federal employees ... in return, the United States agrees to dismiss the lawsuit."

Calls to the Department of Justice and BLM were not returned Friday.

Although Herd Creek Road remains closed, Butts doesn't believe the county lost the war.

"This is a chance to regroup, build a better case and go after (the federal government) in the future, he said.

Nate Sunderland can be reached at 542-6763. Comment on this story on Post Talk at www.postregister.com/post talk/.