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Idaho Rivers United v. Hudson

United States District Court, D. Idaho

July 10, 2015

IDAHO RIVERS UNITED, and MORGAN and OLGA WRIGHT, Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT RANGER JOE HUDSON in his official capacity, and UNITED STATES FOREST SERVICE, Defendants. IDAHO STATE BOARD OF LAND COMMISSIONERS, and IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF LANDS, Defendant-Intervenors.

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

B. LYNN WINMILL, District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

The Court has before it a motion for injunctive relief filed by plaintiffs. The motion is fully briefed on an expedited basis and at issue. For the reasons explained below, the Court will grant the motion.

LITIGATION BACKGROUND

The State of Idaho is conducting logging operations on its land adjoining the Selway River. To facilitate the sale, the Forest Service is allowing the State to run its logging trucks over Forest Road 652. But that road runs through the private property of plaintiffs Morgan and Olga Wright, who claim that the Forest Service violated its own regulations and an easement agreement when they opened the road to the logging trucks.

In this lawsuit, the Wrights, and Idaho River United, seek to enjoin the Forest Service from allowing the State to use Forest Road 652. The State has intervened as a defendant.

This lawsuit pits two adjoining landowners - the Wrights and the State - against each other, with the Forest Service in the middle. The Forest Service claims its decision to open Forest Road 652 to logging trucks is based on a 1937 easement over the Wright's property making the road a public highway. The Wrights counter by highlighting language in a later easement - signed in 1977 - that they allege excluded the public and conditioned the use of the road by the public. In addition, the Wrights allege that the Forest Service failed to follow their own regulations in declaring the road a public road. Meanwhile, the State is proceeding with a logging operation on its land, and claims that if the Wrights block their logging trucks from using Forest Road 652, even for a short time, they will suffer substantial damages.

When plaintiffs Morgan and Olga Wright purchased property adjoining the south side of the Selway River, they knew it was encumbered by two easements held by the Forest Service. The first is a 1937 easement for Forest Road 652, conveying a right-of-way along the road "for the construction, repair, maintenance, and operation of a... public highway." The easement further states that the land owners do "hereby dedicate the said right of way to the general public for all road and highway purposes provided for in the laws of the State of Idaho."

The road itself provides access for the Wrights and the State to their property. Running roughly north-south, the road, at its northern-most beginning point, intersects Forest Road 470 and then proceeds south for about 765 feet through the Wright's property and then into the adjoining parcel owned by the State of Idaho. It continues through the State's property and then through a privately-held parcel (the Ruby Neil property) and Nez Perce National Forest land before ending at Forest Trail #721. Its total length is about a mile-and-a-half.

The road is passable and open to traffic through its entire reach of 765 feet through the Wright's property to the State's property line. See Hudson Affidavit (Dkt. No. 15-1) at ¶¶ 8-10. The State wants to use that section of the road - that is, the 765 feet of road from its parcel through the Wright's land - for its logging trucks to transport logs from a timber salvage operation being conducted on the State's land. The Forest Service originally directed the State to submit an application for a special use permit to use the 765 feet of Forest Road 652. But later, after discovering the 1937 easement, the Forest Service declared the 765 feet of Forest Road 652 to be a public road for which no special use permit was required.

Under its agreement with the Forest Service, the State "will maintain the road in its current condition but will not improve, re-align, reconstruct or modify the road on the Forest Service easement." Id. at ¶ 10. Thus, it appears that the road through the Wright's property will not be widened or modified, and that no trees will be cut or trimmed along that stretch.

The Wright's property was also encumbered by a second easement signed in 1977 with the Forest Service. In the intervening forty years between the first and second encumbrances, the Selway River was included in both the Wilderness Preservation System and the Wild and Scenic River System. The latter protects a corridor along both sides of the Selway River from development. To implement that protection, the Forest Service issued a River Management Plan setting out the agency's plan to buy scenic easements along the corridor to ensure that development did not ruin the Selway River's protected status.

The Wright's property lies entirely within the protected corridor. Pursuant to the River Management Plan, the Forest Service entered into a scenic easement in 1977 with the Wright's predecessor. This 1977 easement - which applies to the Wright's entire property, including the road - contains a list of limitations on the Wrights' use of the property under the heading "Restrictions on Land Use by Grantor." These restrictions include a ban on mining and industrial activities, and restrictions on structures and development close to the river. At the end of the easement agreement is a new heading entitled "Public Entry" that states as follows:

The [Forest Service] is hereby granted the right to permit the public use of the riverbank for fishing and traversing the river, but the public shall be excluded for any other purpose. Where needed, the [Forest Service] may erect appropriate signs indicating ...

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