9th Circuit upholds public access in Sawtooth Valley trail dispute
The owners of a Sawtooth Valley ranch tried to stop a public trail that cuts through their property, but the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the U.S. Forest Service this month, again thwarting the property owners’ efforts.
The 4.5-mile long trail links the city of Stanley to Redfish Lake, popular destinations for summer visitors to the Sawtooth Mountains. It officially opened this August for non-motorized recreation, including hiking, biking and horseback riding.
Ranch owners David Boren and Lynn Arnone filed a lawsuit in 2019 to halt the trail's construction. Their claims were varied and included allegations that the federal government violated the Clean Water Act by approving the trail. A District Court judge ruled in favor of the Forest Service last year, and Boren and Arnone appealed to the 9th Circuit.
The appeal focused on when the property owners became aware of or should have reasonably known about the Forest Service’s plans for the trail. That’s because of the “Quiet Title Act,” which stipulates that property-related lawsuits against the federal government must be filed within a 12-year statute of limitations.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine England argued on behalf of the Department of Justice that the clock started ticking in 2005 when the Forest Service purchased a $1.8 million conservation easement from the previous landowners, the Piva Family, which explicitly granted the right for a public trail. Therefore, the 2019 lawsuit came two years too late under the Quiet Title Act, she said.
However, Boren and Arnone said while they were aware of the easement when they purchased the ranch, the new public trail only came to light when the Forest Service published its plans in 2014. As a result, they believed there was still time for their challenge to the easement to be considered.
Namely, they felt plans to construct the trail with gravel went beyond the scope of the easement, as their attorney Michael Berger explained in October oral arguments before the 9th Circuit.
“It was a right to continue using a bucolic dirt trail, not building something that is quite intrusive into this forested area,” Berger said.
The 9th Circuit judges sided with the government, stating that it should have been evident from the time the easement was signed that the Forest Service would need to construct a trail for public use.
“In combination, the lack of a visible trail and the existence of wetlands along the easement would have put a reasonable landowner on notice of the government’s need to construct at least some partially graded and compacted trail surface along the “strip of land to be utilized as a trail” as early as 2005,” the judges wrote in the memorandum disposition.
England said the government was “thrilled” with the decision from the 9th Circuit and hoped it would bring an end to the dispute, which has been ongoing for over four years.
“The Forest Service and Department of Justice have worked together tirelessly to defend this access that the Forest Service purchased in 2005 so that the public could access this beautiful landscape and walk on this beautiful trail between Stanley and Redfish,” England said.
She also credited the community of Stanley and nonprofits, such as the Idaho Conservation League, that expressed their support for the trail.
The plaintiffs, Boren and Arnone, could choose to appeal to a wider panel of judges on the 9th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court, but it ultimately depends on whether the courts decide to take up the case. Boren and Arnone did not respond to a request for comment through their lawyer.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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