By Martin J. Kidston
The mention of liability at the Beaver Creek Road Advisory Committee was enough to keep members of the board concerned about the topic of highway safety and searching for ways to stave off future accidents.
The committee was brought together by Hill County Commissioners to search for options to the proposed fencing project in Beaver Creek Park. The Montana Department of Transportation says the fence will help improve safety on Beaver Creek Road by keeping cattle off the blacktop.
Until the State of Montana assumes the maintenance of the secondary road system in 2001, transportation officials told committee members that if action is not taken, Hill County will remain largely responsible for any incidents that occur on Beaver Creek Road.
"This county is wide open for a lawsuit," Department of Transportation District Administrator Mick Johnson said. "Especially because the county is aware of the known hazards."
The known hazards which Johnson spoke of are no secret to the committee members, nor residents of the county and visitors to the park.
Between the months of September and December, cattle are permitted to graze freely within the park, unsupervised and unattended. There are no fences to keep them at bay, and their only source of water comes from the creek.
However, in 1997-98, Hill County collected nearly $46,000 in grazing fees within the park. The fees accounted for half the park's total revenue and makes the removal the cattle from park boundaries a non-considerable option.
But with the cattle grazing freely, the MDT's road safety audit reports that livestock were involved in approximately 25 percent of all vehicle accidents in the park. A high percentage which the MDT says is unacceptable.
"The issue is, we have a known hazard," Johnson said. "By law, it must be addressed."
Though no one on the committee argued that car/cattle safety must be addressed, some, like committee member Lou Hagener, said cattle alone are not the issue.
"Cattle are not the only problem we have on that road," Hagener said. "I'd like to see us work harder on solving the safety issue."
Dan Norderud with Robert Peccia and Associates, the engineering firm responsible for preparing the road project's environmental document, cited the MDT's road safety audit which supports Hagener's claim that cattle alone are not at fault.
Norderud read from the MDT's road safety audit which covers a period between January 1998 and June 1999.
Norderud found that 63 accidents occurred on Beaver Creek Road within Beaver Creek Park. One accident was fatal and 31 involved injuries, he said. Of the 63 accidents, 15 involved domestic animals, and six of those occurred in the last three years. Norderud said that 40 percent of the 63 accidents involved alcohol, and 50 percent of the accidents involved drivers under the age of 25 years.
Hagener said that erecting a fence to reduce car-cattle accidents could potentially increase the number of accidents and would not have the desired effect.
"As one who has ranched," Hagener said, "I know a fence will not keep cattle off the road."
Despite statistics that point to the various factors related to accidents on Beaver Creek Road, however, transportation officials said that only the legislature can exempt the park from the fence.
"We're not going to eliminate the accidents," Johnson said. "We're going to limit the liability."
With the hope that the legislature will exempt the park from the mandates of the law, committee members broke into two groups. One will work towards devising a proposal for the legislative exemption. The other will work on options if the exemption fails.