ELKO -- Sometimes discussions about roads that provide access to public lands can become contentious, and some conflict did arise during a discussion of road access at last week’s Elko County commission meeting.
State Sen. Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, was back in Elko County for further discussion of SB316, the bill he sponsored which makes it a misdemeanor for landowners to block access to a public road. The new law went into effect July 1.
On Aug. 29 Elko County issued a press release in which District Attorney Tyler Ingram outlines a careful approach to enforcing the new law. Hansen took issue with some of the statements in the press release. An article about all of this in the Aug. 28 issue of the Elko Daily Free Press was headlined, “Elko County, Sen. Hansen clash over new gate law.”
At the start of the discussion at this week’s county commission meeting, commission chairman Rex Steninger said he did not agree with the characterization that there is a conflict between Elko County and Sen. Hansen over road access issues.
“In the paper and from Ira himself, they keep pointing out that there’s contention between the two of us,” Steninger said. “I disagree with that. I completely understand Sen. Hansen’s concerns about opening up the access to the public lands, and I agree that private landowners should not be allowed to block public access.
“But many times the devil is in the details,” Steninger added. “We want to proceed cautiously and hopefully prevent a big war between landowners and sportsmen.”
A little later in the meeting, while Hansen was talking, Steninger cut him off.
“You’ve had your say, Ira,” Steninger said. “Would you please go sit down.”
The commissioners and Hansen do appear to have a lot of agreement on the basic issue that landowners cannot block access to public roads. However, they have disagreements on what to do about it. Hansen said at Wednesday’s meeting that in most cases it will be fairly easy for Elko County to prove that a road is an RS 2477 public road, and that the new law -- by making it a crime to block access to public land -- will get many landowners to simply take the locks off of gates.
Elko County Deputy District Attorney Rand Greenburg, however, said at Wednesday’s meeting that it can often be difficult to prove that a road is an RS 2477 road.
Let's work together
Commissioner Demar Dahl shared his thoughts on how landowners and sportsmen should work together to resolve road access issues.
“This has been an issue for a long time,” Dahl said. “It’s an issue that we don’t really need to fight over, I think.
“Back in '93 and '94,” Dahl said, “when I was president of the state cattle association, we started an alliance of ranchers and sportsmen with the idea that if you sign up as a sportsman, you’re signing an agreement that says you’re going to be a good neighbor. You’ll close gates, you will go to the rancher for permission to go across the property. And if you’re a rancher you agree that if that sportsman comes to you, and has signed up as part of the alliance, then you will allow him to go across, unless there’s some extenuating circumstance why it shouldn’t happen. And I think we need to revive that.”
“We have tried hard to avoid conflicts in those areas,” Dahl said. “In fact, Rex and I went to Tuscarora to solve the problem at a ranch with a road that went right by the rancher’s house, and they had it closed. And you can’t blame them. On the other side of the ranch yard, where the buildings were, there was a metal sign had been shot so full of holes you couldn’t tell what it said. So you can see why those people are going to want to close the gate.
“We went up there and tried to put a deal together. The forest service participated, the county participated, and we got a road around where this road crosses the ranch.
“We need to do more of that.”
“I think we need respect on both sides,” Dahl said. “I don’t see any reason for the big conflict on this issue. This is something we ought to just be able to work out pretty easy.”
Sen. Hansen started out his comments at Wednesday’s commission meeting with some criticisms of the county’s Aug. 29 press release on the road access law.
“The press release, frankly, in my opinion was flat out disingenuous and deliberately ignored some key points,” Hansen said.
The press release says that since the RS 2477 statute was a “self-executing law” that did not require any action to be taken to validate that a road is a public road, there are “no public records establishing the rights-of-way,” making it difficult to prove that a road is public.
“That’s just pure nonsense,” Hansen said. “You have all sorts of records establishing that it is a public right of way. Your predecessors in 1998 did a very, very thorough job; they didn’t leave any stone unturned.”
Hansen talked about how much he has appreciated the “sagebrush rebellion” stances that Elko County has taken on issues throughout the years. He talked about his own involvement with the Shovel Brigade that fought to open up a road in Jarbidge 19 years ago.
“I raised over 500 shovels,” Hansen said. “I had all four of my sons there. One of the proudest days of my life was July 4, 2000, when we yanked that rock out of the road and then we went in there with picks and shovels, in a pure act of civil disobedience.”
Hansen said the fight to keep public roads open also applies to roads that are blocked by landowners.
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“If an RS 2477 road exists, we’re going to fight like the devil to prevent the BLM and the Forest Service and their travel management plans and so forth from shutting down those roads,” Hansen said. “The exact same principle applies when that same exact road crosses private ground. Because it’s not private at that point, it is a legal easement for the citizens of Nevada.”
Hansen said the counties in Nevada have responded to the new road access law in different ways. He said the Pershing County district attorney went to work almost immediately after the law went into effect July 1.
“Within two weeks he was sending out letters to specific people telling them, you are blocking a public road,” Hansen said. “He listed the statutes, he gave them fair warning. And so far he hasn’t had any challenges. All the people involved -- I don’t think there are a lot, but every single one -- has taken the locks off of their gates.”
Hansen said he was disturbed by the section of the Elko County press release that talks about the Jarbidge road situation. The press release says, “Elko County recently settled a 20-year long dispute over the South Canyon Road near Jarbidge that cost nearly $300,000. Federal District Judge Miranda Du ultimately ruled that Elko failed to prove its claim that the road was an RS 2477 right-of-way and the county later voted to accept an easement from the U.S. Forest Service.”
“The average taxpayer reading that press release will say, ‘We blew $300,000 and still lost? We can’t enforce this law,’” Hansen said.
Hansen said the new law is a misdemeanor law and cases that go to court will only go to justice court.
“The press release made it sound like … if we even try to do this, we’re going to have to spend $300,000 and we may lose even then,” Hansen said. “Baloney. You’re not going to spend $300,000. … You literally will have to spend a couple hours in the recorder’s office, if it’s not already on your preexisting maps, to say OK, we’ve got a case, that road clearly existed on an 1890s survey, the land in question was title-transferred in 1910, consequently it’s an RS 2477 and we have a great case. Let’s go to court.”
In response to Hansen’s comments Steninger said, “To assume that some of these big ranches aren’t going to fight you is, I think, naïve. They have big pockets. So I don’t think you’re being fair in that representation that it’s just going to be a slam dunk deal.”
“I didn’t suggest that in all cases it was going to be a slam dunk,” Hansen said. “If you are in a county where you are being intimidated by wealthy people, because your district attorney is afraid to challenge them because of the potential costs … What are the costs going to be? Let’s get it out in the open and find out what it’s going to be. But the bottom line is, you aren’t supposed to represent just the wealthy people. You’re supposed to represent all the citizens of this county, and if you guys are intimidated by wealthy landowners to the point that your district attorney is afraid to challenge them …”
At that point Steninger cut Hansen off.
“That’s enough,” Steninger said. “We’re not intimidated by anybody, including you.”
The DA's view
Greenburg talked about the stance that the Elko County district attorney’s office is taking on the new law.
“I don’t think anybody in this county is intimidated by anybody,” Greenburg said. “That’s why we fought the federal government for 20-some-odd years for a road. We’re not a county that just backs down when there’s a fight. That’s not what Tyler (Ingram) is saying at all. Tyler in that press release indicated that he was fully ready to implement that law and to enforce it the way that it needs to be enforced. What he was saying is that there are difficulties in enforcing that law. And the county that knows that best would be Elko County, because we spent the last 20-some-odd years trying to litigate that.
“I understand there are roads in this county that are RS 2477s that are extremely easy to identify,” Greenburg said. “Those are not going to be the problem. It’s going to be the roads that are not easy to identify.”
Greenburg talked about some of the potential difficulties of proving that a road is an RS 2477 road. Elko County does have maps, but some are not completely official, and some are illegible in places. Also, if a road was moved to another location at some point, that makes it no longer an RS 2477 road.
“The best thing that we can do is try to be good neighbors.” Greenburg said. “Not try to enforce our way through gates or whatever, that’s not being a good neighbor. I agree there are going to be times when we’re going to have to get a little bit more aggressive with landowners. But at the same time, we don’t want to stomp all over those landowners’ rights to exclude people when they have the right to exclude people.”
Commissioner Cliff Eklund said when he goes to a new area to hunt he looks it over to see what is private property and which roads provide access to public lands. Then he calls the landowners about using the roads.
“I have yet to have a rancher turn me down,” Eklund said.
“I think it’s an easy fix,” Eklund said, “but it’s going to take cooperation on both sides. Nobody wants to see their property destroyed by irresponsible people. And wanting to know who’s on their property and who’s crossing their property, I don’t think that’s unreasonable. But still I think we need to figure out a way to work so the public has access to the public lands. And I’ve never seen a rancher so unreasonable that he won’t let them cross private property to get to those public lands.”
During the public comment session, Larry Lednisky of Ryndon said that for years he has hunted in the Pequop Mountains but now there is a locked gate on a road, and when he sent emails to the address on the gate he was told he can’t use the road.
“He said he had so much damage to fences and gates that he didn’t want anybody up there,” Lednisky said.
“I’ve been horseback through most of this county,” Lesinsky said. “I know what you are talking about -- show respect, open the gate, close the gate; I understand all that. But there’s people out there that don’t. What’s happening is, we’re paying for everybody else’s mistakes.”
Steninger gave Lednisky a copy of the county’s Aug. 29 press release.
“That tells you the process to take when you encounter a blocked road,” Steninger said. “Let us know how it works.”