By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
A private landowner in Blaine County is restricting access to the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, to the consternation of some people in the Havre area.
"We've had a lot of complaints this year. I think a lot of people have been surprised," said Mitch Forsyth of the Havre office of the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Bill Robinson, who ranches about 50 miles south of Chinook with his wife, Ronnie Robinson, said problems - like left-open gates and a damaged roadway - caused by people crossing their land prompted them to require that people get written permission first.
"This is one way for us to keep track of what is going on," he said.
Forsyth said the restriction on the Robinson property limits access to about 50,000 acres of public land in the Breaks.
Forsyth said the BLM office in Havre has received about 100 complaints about the access restriction but doesn't know how many of those complaints came from people who were denied access.
Ronnie Robinson said she and her husband have refused to give access to about five or six people, and have given written permission slips to about 125.
"We have met people (on our property) who want to go in and and written a permission slip on the spot," she said. "All we want is for people to call, and be polite."
Robinson said she and her husband do not oppose the monument and are not opposed to public access to it. But the number of people traveling to the area has increased year-round since it was designated a monument by President Clinton in 2001, she said.
"We're not trying to stop access," she added. "We want people to be accountable if there are problems."
She said the family's attorney recommended requiring permission for the general public to use their road. The attorney said it is a private road, she said.
The BLM has occasionally done work on the road, but the Robinsons generally maintain it, she said.
The Robinsons are within their legal rights to limit access across their land if the road is private, said Craig Flentie, spokesman for the BLM Lewistown Field Office. He said he is not sure if the road is public or private.
"I think the status of that road is a big part of the debate," he said.
If the status of the road is challenged and it is determined to be a public road, the Robinsons would not be able to limit use of the road but they would be able to control use of their private property adjacent to the road, he added.
Most people have not had a problem with the restriction once the Robinsons explain why permission is required, Bill Robinson said.
"Some are pretty upset but some are pretty understanding," he said.One person offered him money to be allowed to cross the land, Robinson said.
"I refused to take payment," he said. "That's not what we're looking for. We're not looking to make money off of it."
Blaine County Commission Art Kleinjan said the road across the Robinsons' land is not a county road and is not maintained by the county.
Kleinjan said access to the monument is a concern.
"I feel, personally, that we've got to do something to allow public access into that monument," he said.
But he said he has not received any complaints about the Robinsons' restriction and doubts it will be a problem if the Robinsons generally give permission to people to cross.
The Robinsons refused permission to one group of people who had been caught trespassing in the area a couple of times and were found prowling around the Robinsons' residence, she said.
She refused permission to another person who started calling her names during a telephone conversation, she added.
She said one of the reasons the Robinsons posted the sign was a lack of respect for their private property by people crossing. People left gates open, allowing the Robinsons' cattle to leave the property. Last year people who used the road during rain and snow tore it up so much that the Robinsons couldn't use it to reach their cattle, she said.
"It just got to the point where we couldn't do our job," she said.
Some of the problems have been caused by people working for natural gas companies, who can go onto the Robinsons' property without permission because the family does not own the subsurface rights, Robinson said.
Gas companies have runpipelines and bladed a road without permission, she said.
The companies are required to get permission before engaging in activities like that, Robinson added.
She declined to identify the companies.
Robinson said she and her husband are trying to work with the BLM and the state government to make sure gas companies are following regulations and respecting the Robinsons' private property rights.
Requiring permission before allowing people to use their road onto her property seems to have worked well so far, she said: Many of those who get permission are telling the Robinsons if they notice any damage to the property.