County roads: what caused the jurisdiction issues?

By Sarah Pridgeon

The County Commissioners and Forest Service addressed the public last week regarding plans to update the jurisdiction of county roads. The process, according to Steve Kozel, District Ranger, marks the first time in the West that the Forest Service has discussed road jurisdiction with a government agency outside a courtroom setting.

Full details of the meeting and how to submit your concerns and requests to the County Commissioners are available in this week’s issue of the Sundance Times. Below is an explanation given during the meeting by Dave Plummer, Forest Service Engineer, as to how jurisdiction issues came about in the first place.

An 1866 mining law, said Plummer, gave the right to people who were prospecting to claim land. The law stated that, at any point where the public establishes a path across unreserved public ground, it constitutes a road.

This was later replaced by a revised statute that left intact the right of the public to establish a road across unallocated public ground through usage.

“With public ground, we tend to think in terms of [it being owned by] the Forest Service,” Plummer clarified. “In fact, it’s ground that’s managed by the Forest Service, a little bit of a different concept.”

Because the mining law allowed roads to be established when a person had a stake or territory, Wyoming territory and then Wyoming state established laws that also allowed rights-of-way to be established through usage, both across public and private ground. This continued until the early 1920s, when the Legislature passed a law with a drop-dead date of 1924, said Plummer, at which point the counties were required to enumerate the roads by surveying and formally claiming them.

In the meantime, he continued, roads had been established in what is now the Black Hills National Forest, again on unreserved ground. In the early 1900s, the Black Hills Reserve was formed and the ground was no longer unreserved, but numerous roads were still considered and plans exist from the 1930s on rights of way that were signed by forest supervisors, their purposes lost to time.

In 1960, the Forest Road and Trail Act was created. “That established a formal procedure where a government entity, whether the county, road district or county, could establish a road across federal ground on the forest, managed by the Forest Service, by asking for a right-of-way,” said Plummer.

This did not, however, repeal the 1866 mining law. Roads could still be created through usage until 1976, when the Forest Land Planning Amendment Act essentially stopped all adverse possession or action of establishing a road through access.

Input from the public on specific roads and usage will continue to be welcomed until the end of the month. Whether you access the forest for hunting, hiking, snowmobiling or any other activity or own land across the county, the commissioners will welcome your input on which should stay as they are and which need to change.

Information, maps of proposed road jurisdiction and comment forms are available on the county’s website at Completed forms should be submitted at the courthouse by the end of the month.