Disputed roads near DeBeque confirmed as public

U.S. District Court judge rules in favor of Garfield County in public access case

December 31, 2020

A Colorado District Court judge has ruled in favor of Garfield County in a case that determined two roads passing through High Lonesome Ranch near DeBeque are public rights-of-way under Revised Statute (R.S.) 2477, which was enacted as part of the Mining Act of 1866 to encourage highway development in the west. The ranch had argued that the roads are privately owned.

A section of North Dry Fork Road, also known as County Road 200, and Middle Dry Fork Road, which forks off the former, have existed in virtually the same routes since the late 1800s, according to the ruling by U.S. District Court of Colorado Judge R. Brooke Jackson. The roads are blocked by a locked gate within the boundary of the ranch property.

“The court … finds that the roads have been in substantially the same location for at least one hundred years,” the ruling reads. “The court does not find slight deviations in the roads’ location or width to diminish the certainty or definiteness of its route.”

These roads provide access to roughly 50,000 to 90,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public land beyond the ranch, the ruling noted.

“Public access to BLM lands in the Dry Fork area would increase substantially if the public could drive up Middle and North Dry Fork Roads past the locked gate,” according to the ruling.

The Dry Fork area was once home to the Ute Indian Reservation, but then-President Chester A. Arthur terminated the reservation and returned it to the public domain in 1882. “As a result, the lands in the Dry Fork valleys and canyons became subject to both purchase and homestead entry,” the ruling notes.

The Mining Act of 1866 was repealed by the Federal Land Policy Management Act of 1976, but any RS 2477s designated before that repeal are preserved.

The case first entered the courts in April 2016, when the ranch asked the court to declare the roads private. The ruling ends an exhaustive effort by the Garfield County Attorney’s Office to ensure that the public rights-of-way are preserved, and access is granted to the public. The court ordered that all restrictive gates along the stretches of these roads be removed so the public may access the rights-of-way, and that the plaintiff pay court costs.

“I am very gratified with the result and pleased about what this means for the citizens and visitors to Garfield County,” said Garfield County Attorney Tari Williams. “Credit has to go to the commissioners, who stood by their commitment to public access to public lands and in so doing, revived the rich and interesting history of the Dry Fork Valley. Although use of the land has changed over the past 100-plus years, its beauty remains. Going forward, we are confident that the public will be able to enjoy this asset, while observing and respecting the interests of the adjacent private property owners.”

“The court holds that the roads in dispute became public in their entirety no later than 1949 through a combination of R.S. 2477 and public prescriptive use. The county has not abandoned the roads, and they remain public today,” the ruling concluded. “In Colorado it is far easier for a road to become public than for it to cast off its public status. This reality, in part, reflects the historic importance of public land, and the right of everyday citizens, not just the privileged, to travel freely and to enjoy the great landscapes of this state.”