December 4, 2002
Gate debate divides ranchers and county

BY DEON LACKEY, WEEKLY STAFF WRITER

A crowd of about thirty ranchers gathered to address the single agenda item before the Park County Commission Monday, Dec. 2. The amendment to a county resolution concerning gates across county roads had local ranchers worried that the county would hamper their ability to pen or handle their cattle, and had the County Commission caught between complying with state law and pleasing conflicting members of their constituency.

The commission recently discovered that an 18 year old resolution allowing ranchers to build gates and cattle guards across county roads is not in compliance with state law, which mandates that there be no “encroachment” across any road adjacent to a state or federal highway or right of way. The County Commission defined “gate” as an encroachment and sought to amend their resolution to disallow ranchers from putting gates across county roads. This solution was furthered by “numerous complaints,” in the words of Dan Gutebier, from residents who were frustrated by trying to cross roads with locked gates or inconvenienced by gates.

The ranchers point out that the county roads, many of which are not in common use or are not maintained by the county, often cross property boundary lines, and without the gates or cattle guards, there would be no way to prevent cattle from wandering into a neighboring pasture or into the road. Several ranchers argued that an unlocked gate or a gate on a county road not near a highway could not even be considered encroachments under the state law, and that trying to abolish them would be “unconstitutional and illegal,” in the words of Justin O’Hair. “A gate isn’t a fence, it’s an opening in a fence,” stated commissioner-elect Jim Durgan. “It isn’t really an encroachment unless it’s a locked gate.”

The debate about the breadth of the state law led Commissioners Ed Carrell and Gutebier to vote to table the issue pending further investigation.

“We’re trying to just do what I would call housekeeping,” Ed Schilling, County Commission chairman, said after the meeting. “We’re not going to rip out every gate. When we get a complaint, we’ll address it. We can’t overlook the problem, but we’re not going out to look for locked gates.” Schilling pointed out that the county has had consistent complaints concerning three gates, one each in Jardine, Livingston, and Emigrant. The problem “is pretty well county-wide,” he noted, adding that most of the complaints stemmed from recreationists wanting easier access to Forest Service lands.

“We’ve only got so much money to spend,” he said. The state law may require the county to put in or maintain the gates or to remove them, but all at taxpayer expense. “If they want more gravel or more snow ploughed, something’s going to get neglected. It’s a matter of how we best spend the taxpayers’ money, if the public says that’s their main priority.”

Written comment will be accepted by the commission on the amendment regarding gates through 5 pm, Dec. 13. At its regular meeting Dec. 4, 9 am, the commission could set a date for a special meeting.