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Private property rights groups rally behind ranch owners in Sawtooth trail dispute

The view of the Sawtooth Valley from Galena Summit.
Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio
Jim Snow, a former government lawyer who worked for the Forest Service, said conservation easements are a big part of the reason why the Sawtooth Valley looks the way it does today.

Three private property rights groups have filed amicus briefs, urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review a lawsuit regarding a public access trail that crosses a Sawtooth Valley ranch.

Last fall, a federal appeals court sided against Sawtooth Mountain Ranch owners David Boren and Lynn Arnone. They had contested the Forest Service’s authority to construct a trail connecting Stanley to Redfish Lake within an easement on their land. In April, Boren and Arnone filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court.

The Sawtooth Conservation & Recreation Alliance is one of the groups that filed a brief in support of the ranch owners. Documents for the non-profit list Jon Christianson and Russell Clark of Stanley and Ken Verheyen of Costa Mesa, Calif., as officers.

Albert Barker, an attorney for The Alliance, said the group includes property owners within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, similar to Sawtooth Mountain Ranch. Like the ranch, they have conservation easements purchased by the Forest Service on their properties.

The property owners’ primary concern with the federal appeals court ruling is that it determined Boren and Arnone had missed the 12-year statute of limitations under the Quiet Title Act to challenge the Forest Service’s interpretation of the easement. They argue that the clock should’ve started later and fear this ruling might affect their ability to contest potential disputes with the Forest Service over easements in court.

“The main concern that the association has is ensuring that, if a dispute arises with the Forest Service, that they have the opportunity to have someone other than the Forest Service answer that question, rather than just say, leave it to the Forest Service to be the sole judge of what they can and can't do under an easement,” Barker said.

The Sawtooth National Recreation Area was established in 1972 after a proposal for a national park was rejected. It encompasses a significant amount of private property – about 20,000 acres. This was intentional to preserve the Western ranching character of the area.

To maintain private property rights while protecting the scenery and preventing unwanted development, the Forest Service mainly relied on purchasing conservation easements on these private parcels. The agency has spent $48 million acquiring easements on 104 parcels since 1974.

The 9th Circuit’s ruling last year said Boren and Arnone should have known in 2005, when the previous property owners signed the easement, that the Forest Service would need to do construction for the public to utilize a trail granted in the easement. However, the ranch owners argued that the agency’s plans only became clear when they were published in 2014.

Barker and The Alliance contend that property owners should be able to challenge the Forest Service in court when they perceive the agency has expanded the scope of the easement. They argue that the statute of limitations should be tied to when the agency clarifies its plans, not when the easement was initially signed.

“This is about challenging an effort by the United States to do more under the easement than the easement allows,” he said. “That should be challengeable by the landowner at any time, once that new plan comes into being.”

The Pacific Legal Foundation and law firm Desmond, Nolan, Livaich & Cunningham, both based in Sacramento, Calif. and focused on private property rights, also filed amicus briefs on Monday.

David McDonald, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, criticized the 9th Circuit’s ruling, saying it creates a “pernicious trap” for property owners, where their claims against the government are either brought too early or too late.

“Once you find out something has gone wrong, there’s nothing you can do,” he said.

The organization also disagrees with the federal appeals court’s ruling that Boren and Arnone could not seek non-monetary relief under the Fifth Amendment, which it says goes against precedent.

Boren and Arnone’s challenge to the Stanley-to-Redfish Trail hinges on whether four justices vote to review it.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on X @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2024 Boise State Public Radio

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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