Hike service

Sawtooth East Fork Road Closure Legal, Forest Service Says

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A sign posted on a gate on East Fork Road explains why motor vehicle access has been cut off.

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Hunters on social media have criticized a rural road closure in Sawtooth National Recreation Area that prevents hikers from using motor vehicles to reach the trailheads.

Despite questions about the legality of the closure, which is on a Forest Service road crossing private property, the Forest Service said it was legitimate and the agency is working with landowners to find a solution.

The gate closes off about a mile of road that crosses private land owned by a group of people — going by the name of West Pass Ranch, LLC — that includes Mike Boren, one of the co-founders of fintech firm Boise Clearwater Analytics. Across the approximately 150-acre private parcel, East Fork Road continues for just under a mile.

On August 31, a member of a Sawtooth Mountains hiking and hiking Facebook group posted a photo of a gate on Forest Service Road 120, also known as East Fork Road. The sign said the gate would be locked due to “numerous trespassing and violations of private property rights” and closed to motor vehicles. It would remain open to foot traffic to access the hot springs and public lands beyond, including the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness.

Comments on the Facebook post both criticized and welcomed the closure, with some commenters applauding landowners’ property rights and others questioning whether the closure was legal. Some have drawn parallels to the gates erected by Dan and Farris Wilks, billionaire brothers from Texas who own thousands of acres of land in Idaho and faced backlash for closing access to long-open roads in audience.

Last week, a hunter posted on Reddit about the Idaho subreddit being shut down, again wondering if it was legal. The poster stated that the road was the only access to their hunting ground and that it had remained open for years.

“It prevents me from accessing our public lands,” the poster wrote. “I understand that (the landowners) are upset, but they feel like they have overstepped their land ownership rights.”

The poster and other commenters again compared the shutdown to the Wilks. Some encouraged the original poster to speak to landowners.

“Pro Access Property”

The West Pass Ranch sign was put up by Jerrod Farr, the ranch’s property manager. In an email, Farr told the Idaho Statesman that the owners are “an access-friendly ownership group that is working hard to find a long-term solution.”

Farr pointed out that West Pass still allows access on foot as well as on horseback, bicycle and motorbike with owner permission. He said other bike and motorcycle lanes circle the property and access requests are considered on a case-by-case basis.

It’s also not the first time the property has been fenced off, Farr said. The previous owners for similar issues, including “significant vandalism,” he said. Farr said most people understood the shutdown.

And the closure is legal, according to the Forest Service. In an email, Sawtooth National Forest spokeswoman Elizabeth Wharton said the agency “may have maintained this road once or twice in the past,” but no active easements preclude private owners to close a door.

Justin Williams, salmon region conservation office for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said in a phone interview that his office had received several complaints about the closure in mid-September. He said Fish and Game informed hunters that the closure was legitimate and should be obeyed.

“If there’s anything we can do to help work with (the owners) and Sawtooth National Recreation Area to provide access, we’re 100%,” Williams said. “(We want to try) figure out how to allow people to cross or bypass this property and maintain access in this area.”

Farr said the ownership group was already working with stakeholders on an access solution, though he declined to provide further details.

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Nicole Blanchard is part of the Idaho Statesman Investigation and Surveillance Teams. She also covers Idaho Outdoors and frequents trails around Idaho. Nicole grew up in Idaho, graduated from Idaho State University and Northwestern University with a master’s degree in journalism.
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