Court Opinions: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion for March 7

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

High Lonesome Ranch v. Board of County Commissioner, et al.

North Dry Fork Road runs east from west from De Beque, Colorado, to the top of a ridgeline above the North Dry Fork Valley. As the road, also called Dry Fork Road, heads west from De Beque, it splits into South Dry Fork Road and North Dry Fork Road, also known as County Road 200. 

County Road 200 veers northwest from this split until it reaches a locked gate on High Lonesome Ranch’s property, a conservation and livestock ranch offering hunting and outdoor recreation services. It continues west until it forks again into North Dry Fork Road and Middle Dry Fork Road, called “The Y.” Only Middle Dry Fork Road and a portion of North Dry Fork Road west of the gate are disputed. Though North Dry Fork Road and Middle Dry Fork Road mostly lie on the ranch’s property, some scattered segments traverse the Bureau of Land Management land. 

For years, the ranch restricted access to the roads by locking a gate.

The ranch was formed from three separate land purchases — the Hitchburg Property, the Broadhead Property and the McKay Fork Ranch Property — by Paul Vahldiek, the founder and sole proprietor of the High Lonesome Ranch LLC, in the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2003, when Vahldiek bought the McKay Fork Ranch, marketing materials for the ranch stated that “County Road 200” ran from De Beque to the eastern boundary of the ranch at which point a private road continued eight miles across the ranch. Based on that information, Vahldiek concluded the road crossing the property was private. 

The High Lonesome Ranch said Garfield County first claimed a Revised Statute 2477 right-of-way over North Dry Fork Road and Middle Dry Fork Road in December 2015. The county based its right-of-way claim on alleged public use of the public roads beginning in the 1880s. 

The Garfield County Commission met in December 2015 and directed the ranch to unlock its gate and allow motorized traffic over the roads west of the gate. The ranch first agreed and the county said the parties met and discussed installing fencing, cattle guards and no trespassing signs along the roads. In March 2016, the parties identified where these items would be placed, but after the county began obtaining bids for the work, litigation began. 

The ranch filed a declaratory-judgment action in Colorado state court opposing the county. It sought a declaration that no member of the public could use the road, and sought injunctions barring the county from requiring it to remove its gate. 

The county moved to dismiss the case based on the ranch’s failure to name the U.S. as a defendant. Rather than dismissing the case, the state court ordered the ranch to join the U.S. as a necessary party to the suit, reasoning the U.S. had an interest in the litigation because the road accessed the Bureau of Land Management land.

The Bureau of Land Management removed the case to federal district court. In October 2020, after a five-day bench trial, the district court ruled the entire lengths of the two disputed roads were subject to public rights-of-way. In doing so, the district court relied on the Colorado adverse-use law and R.S. 2477. 

 On appeal, the ranch contended various procedural shortcomings deprived the district court of subject-matter jurisdiction; the district court erred in applying Colorado adverse use law and misapplied R.S. 2477 and the Colorado presumption of abandonment; the district court failed to adequately describe the county’s rights-of-way; and the Colorado Court of Appeals previously adjudicated the same roads as being private in Enerwest, Inc. v. Dyco Petroleum Corp. in 1986. 

                                                                                                                                    The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s adverse-use ruling but reversed and remanded its R.S. 2477 ruling under recent circuit authority governing acceptance of R.S. 2477 rights. The 10th Circuit also remanded the case to the district court to determine the location and widths of the rights-of-way by survey.

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