On Friday morning, a line of pickup trucks squeezed down a narrow dirt road along Marion’s McGregor Lake. Six members of Flathead Wildlife Inc., along with two Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks employees began cutting errant saplings off the road and feeding them into a mulcher.
Doing so will make it easier for vehicles and campers to reach what Flathead Wildlife’s vice president, Chuck Hunt, called an “extremely good lake” for fishing. But the maintenance project had another goal.
For 12 years, the group has fought – and sued – to protect this 1,300-foot tract from encroachment by landowners and abandonment by the county.
Next month, the Flathead County commissioners will weigh a compromise that could put the matter to rest. But Flathead Wildlife has another lawsuit filed in case it’s not satisfied, and its members were willing to go to work on a cold December morning to show their commitment.
“This area’s growing fast,” Hunt said over the machinery’s whirr. Predicting that this trend would bode ill for outdoor recreationists, he said that “we gotta maintain these [access points] and keep ‘em open.”
The dispute’s seeds were sown in 1926, when the Northern Pacific Railway deeded the easement to Flathead County for a road. It served as part of U.S. 2 until that highway shifted to its current alignment in the 1960s.
As the decades passed, the road’s access to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks land along McGregor Lake became its main value for motorists. Even that dwindled in 2001 when a new road opened. Sited farther uphill, it runs along the back of the area’s five subdivided lots, then slopes downhill to the state land.
Marian Cartee, who with her husband bought a lot with a trailer there in 2007, said that “no more than four [cars] a day at most” take the old route, no longer paved.
Her neighbors, retirees Bill and Phyllis Lynch, had little trouble building along it. In 2005, with approval from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the Flathead City-County Health Department, they put the area’s first permanent house mere feet from the old road, their lawn and two small sheds edging onto it.
Flathead Wildlife members were taken aback.
“We were going out there,” Hunt recalled. “We saw a bunch of obstructions and things in the road, and we were like, ‘Wait a minute, what the heck? This is supposed to be a granted access.”
The right of way had never been abandoned — a fact disclosed in the Lynches’ title insurance.
“I should have done some more checking,” Bill Lynch, now deceased, acknowledged in a 2008 Daily Inter Lake interview.
In 2006, landowners and the state tried to compromise by extending the newer road through state lands, easing the angle of approach to the lake. That attempt failed for regulatory reasons, leaving the Lynches and Cartees with a dusty road and a decade of frustration.
“At no point ever — even a day — did the public not have access to the Fish, Wildlife and Parks land,” Cartee said. “They used that private road for a long time and the road was maintained by the property owners.”
“We’ve had financial loss from this as well,” she added. “I don’t think any of us could probably sell until this is resolved.”
In 2009, landowners sued Flathead County and Fish, Wildlife and Parks to have the old road abandoned or diverted. Flathead Wildlife intervened on the defendants’ behalf.
“It is uncontroverted that the new road is too steep where it connects with the old road to provide safe passage in the winter,” wrote Flathead County District Judge Stewart Stadler.
He also noted the need for the public to have guaranteed access. In the 2006 attempt to extend it, Stadler observed that “there was no corresponding written agreement by the landowners that they would deed the private road to the County for the public.”
The court sided with Flathead Wildlife. But the group hasn’t seen the county properly maintaining the access. This past August, they filed a new lawsuit.
In their complaint, they argued that the road remained blocked through March 2016, when Flathead County Administrator Mike Pence wrote that the county would take “no further action” on the issue.
By the following July, the group claimed to have found it blocked by “a house, a private well, a fifth-wheel camper trailer, and 3 feet of dirt fill on the roadway, which constitutes the front yard of the aforementioned house.”
By now, a vehicle-width path has been cut through the Lynches’ backyard. But the group has kept its suit pending, until it’s convinced that the county will keep it clear and secure its width at 15 feet. That “would pretty much provide two-way traffic and provide for larger boats and campers to get in here,” Flathead Wildlife president Jim Vashro ventured.
Getting there may not require a lawsuit. This fall, four of the shoreline’s five landowners petitioned the county to alter the right of way, reducing its overall width from 60 to 30 feet, but keeping the road at 15.
“We’re in agreement with this,” Vashro told the Inter Lake. “It would reduce the right of way to 30 feet, so they would get something out of it, but it also would re-establish a two-lane road, which has always been Flathead Wildlife’s goal.”
That goal may come at the cost of local goodwill. While Cartee brought the petition before the county, she still had harsh words for the group’s treatment of Phyllis Lynch, whose house lies at the heart of the argument.
“This Wildlife, Inc group wanted them to move their house. We’re talking [about] an 80-year-old widow. And I’m just really angry about that.”
“To ask an 80-year-old widow to move her house is ... I just think, abusive. And they brag about it. This wildlife group brags about it on their website, that they’re doing this to Mrs. Lynch.” Phyllis Lynch did not reply to requests for comment.
On its website, Flathead Wildlife did state that it “successfully sued Flathead County to force the county to take action to remove a house illegally built on a county road that blocked access to Fish, Wildlife and Parks land on McGregor Lake.”
Asked about this statement, Hunt said that the website needed to be updated. While he still believes that Flathead Wildlife has the legal footing to force a relocation, he insisted that’s “not our intent. Not even close. There’s enough room between their property and the shoreline to be able to maintain the two-lane road through there for public access.”
The Flathead County Commissioners will weigh that outcome in a Jan. 9 public hearing. Hunt called on residents to attend — not just to preserve a short gravel tract, but to understand why they consider it worth preserving.
“Hey, look, this is your public access. Protect it. Because if you don’t protect it, it won’t be there.’
The hearing will take place at 9:15 a.m. on Jan. 9 in the Commissioners’ Chambers on the third floor of the County Courthouse in Kalispell. The petition, along with maps of the area, can be viewed at https://flathead.mt.gov/commissioner/.
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 758-4407.