Montezuma County takes over a problem road

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After years of arguments over locked gates, public access, and historic rights-ofway, Montezuma County, the Forest Service, and a private landowner have tentatively agreed on an amicable resolution to a conflict over a Mancos-area road.

On Jan. 23, Patrick McCoy, land and minerals specialist with the Dolores Ranger District, told the county commissioners that the Forest Service will grant the county a perpetual easement to the Red Arrow Road, Forest Road 567.

The road is in the Echo Basin area northeast of Mancos. It runs 4.3 miles from the end of County Road L across national-forest land toward private land and the Red Arrow mine. It continues further, on and off private land, toward Spiller Peak, and used by many locals for wood-cutting, hunting and recreation.

“We love giving the county our roads and having them assume liability and maintenance,” McCoy told the board. The commission’s attorney, Bob Slough, said the road appears to qualify as an RS 2477 right-of-way under an 1866 statute that granted access across federal public lands.

The rugged route originally traveled to a mining camp that pre-dated the creation of the San Juan National Forest. It has been used in the years since then to gain access to the private lands in the area, including the Red Arrow Mine, and by locals using public lands.

In 2005, one private landowner put a locked gate across the road, blocking public access. According to county-commission minutes, on Nov. 21, 2005, the commissioners voted unanimously to send that landowner a certified letter ordering him to remove the gate by Dec. 5 of that year. When he did not, the board then sent a road employee and a sheriff ’s officer to tear down the gate, which they did.

More recently, there have been disagreements between the Forest Service and another private landowner, Craig Liukko, president of Red Arrow Gold Corp. and owner of the mine.

The Forest Service, which manages the road where it crosses national-forest land, has a gate at the end of Road L, where public land begins. According to McCoy, the road is open during late spring, summer and early fall, but in the winter the Forest Service locks the gate, closing the road to full-size motor vehicles in the snow.

For a time, the gate had two interlocking mechanisms, one for the agency and one for Liukko, either of which allowed entry.

Liukko was supposed to obtain a road-use permit from the agency to allow him to use the road in winter, but he didn’t, McCoy said. The permit would allow him to maintain and snowplow the road; it would not grant him any rights to it.

McCoy said a road-use permit can be issued by the district ranger and lasts up to five years. There is no fee for a road-use permit, but the agency said Liukko had to have liability coverage and a performance bond of $9,000 in case he damaged the road or failed to maintain it to agency standards.

“As long as Craig Liukko was working toward an authorization, we allowed him to use the road in the winter time,” McCoy said.

However, Liukko never acquired the permit, so the Forest Service decided to act. “We had enough after last winter, and I said after a certain date if we didn’t get the paperwork back we sent him in August 2009, I was going to physically remove his lock and he would not be able to maintain or snowplow the 4.3 miles across public lands.”

McCoy said Liukko “didn’t feel the Forest Service had any right to be closing or managing that road.”

McCoy said the date came and went without any paperwork from Liukko.

At that time, a furor was raging in Montezuma County over proposed road closures on public lands northeast of Dolores. County Sheriff Dennis Spruell had said numerous times that he was willing to arrest any Forest Service official who tried to close roads on public lands in violation of what Spruell felt to be the law.

“The sheriff had said [in a newspaper article] that if he caught me removing the lock from the private gate he would arrest me, but that didn’t stop me,” McCoy said.

“We gave a date by which [Liukko] had to submit the paperwork, but I didn’t go up on that date. I waited until the road surface dried out, in April or May. We were going to open the gate anyway for the summer, so when we did that, I just removed the private lock intact and sent it to Mr. Liukko.”

At that point, the county became involved, he said. “We had been talking with them off and on about taking over that road and they said they were still interested.”

In the summer, the road was open. In December 2011, however, the mine owners notified McCoy that they wanted access.

“I told Craig he needed to return that road-use permit with a performance bond and proof of insurance. He didn’t agree, so he went to the county sheriff, who contacted me twice, but I did not return the calls.”

Spruell then went to Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles, who discussed the situation with Acting District Ranger Mark Lambert and McCoy. They agreed to move ahead with giving an easement to the county.

In the meantime, they decided to allow Liukko access as long as he worked toward getting the permit by the end of January, McCoy said, and Liukko has done so. He will need the permit until the county takes over.

McCoy said agency officials were pleased at the county’s offer.

“When the county jumped into it and said they would take it over, we were happy to give it to them,” McCoy said.

An easement conveys considerably more rights than a road-use permit. McCoy said the perpetual easement that the county will get will last indefinitely unless the county no longer wants it or doesn’t use it for five or more years.

“It’s pretty well etched in stone,” he said, “unless they don’t want it. I don’t see the Forest Service rescinding it.”

For private owners, there is an annual fee for an easement, but there will be no fee for the county.

The Denver office of the Forest Service will review and approve the easement, McCoy said. “We consider this a fairly significant right – granting an easement – so we don’t do that locally,” he told the commissioners. “We don’t take it lightly.”

Granting an easement is short of granting title, however, something that the Forest Service is preparing to do in the case of the Dolores-Norwood Road.

Liukko told the Free Press it was a good solution for all involved, and declined to comment on the previous disagreement.

“I applaud the Forest Service and the commissioners and the sheriff,” he said. “It was all done nice and peaceably. It was done in a good spirit.”

Liukko has owned the Red Arrow Mine since 1988, he said. He declined to say what the plans for the mine are in the immediate future, citing privacy concerns.

According to a Dec. 15, 2011, press release from Rock Energy Resources, Inc., and other information online, He-Man LLC of Texas (now American Patriot Gold) was scheduled to acquire the Red Arrow mine for $25 million this winter.

In 2006, Red Arrow Gold resumed year round operations at the Red Arrow Mine and did major renovations, according to the press release. In 2008, the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety approved a permit amendment nearly doubling the permit size. There are plans to install three mills on the mine property.

At the Jan. 23 meeting, McCoy said the county should send the Forest Service a letter formally requesting the transfer of jurisdiction and stating exactly how long a stretch of the road it wants to take over. The width of the easement was tentatively set at 60 feet.

There will be an environmental assessment and a public-comment period for the proposal. McCoy said he was not sure whether an archaeological survey would be required. Final approval of the easement is expected in May or June. “I think it’s a win-win for the county and the Forest Service,” McCoy said.

Slough agreed, telling the board, “I’ve said for years this should qualify as a 2477 road,” but that an easement was the simplest way to gain control. Slough said even if the county went to court to try to obtain a 2477 right-of-way, such a claim might be only as wide as the original road.

County federal-lands coordinator James Dietrich told the Free Press the arrangement “looks like a win-win for everybody,” including a broad spectrum of recreationalists, “because if it becomes a county road, we have more incentive to make sure it stays open all the way as opposed to having it cut off by the owner. The county’s policy is to keep all public roads open.”

Dietrich said the discussion about taking over the road started several years ago under former District Ranger Steve Beverlin. “He first offered to work with the county and said if we wanted it, it was ours.”

Yet to be answered, however, are questions about maintenance of the road, which by all accounts is extremely rugged. McCoy described it as a rough, four-wheel-drive route studded with giant rocks and enormous dips that allow water to drain off the surrounding slopes.

At the Jan. 23 meeting, Slough warned the commissioners that parts of the road are in a rock-slide area. “I don’t think there’s another county road like this,” he said. “I think you’re going to have concerns with that road. This was a good way to do this, but it will be a concern in terms of public safety.”

Liukko said the road is one of the worst in the county but he has plans to work with the county to improve it.

County Planning Director Susan Carver told the Free Press that road impact fees would not be required from an already-existing commercial operation; however, the owner and the county could come to some arrangement for doing maintenance.

McCoy said Liukko has offered to use his tailings to put into the road, but both the Forest Service and county want assurances first that the tailings would meet their standards for road base.

McCoy reiterated that the agency was relieved to be turning over maintenance to the county.

“If the county road department wants to add more miles to their work plan, it must be a pretty important matter, and we’re glad to help,” McCoy said.

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From February 2012.