“My own government lied to my face and took my land rights. Listen to my story, because you and your property could be next.”
In 2006, Wil Wilkins was stunned to read the block print on a freshly erected federal sign adjoining his land: PUBLIC ACCESS THRU PRIVATE LANDS. In a flash, every citizen of the United States had crossing rights on his private ground.
Despite possession of an easement protecting his land, no court would examine the contents of the agreement, instead declaring Wilkins’ protests to be too late—beyond the statute of limitations.
However, Wilkins successfully marched his case to the Supreme Court, asking for judgement based on fact. After a 17-year saga, Wilkins gained a benchmark property rights victory: “I served in the military, was faithful to my country, and then had my land rights stolen.”
“Shame, truth, honor—those are evil words to the bureaucracy,” he adds. “I’m 73 years old and I’ve seen government steadily expand its authority in my lifetime, but I never dreamed it would get this powerful.”
In God’s country, surrounded by some of the most beautiful topography in the U.S., Wilkins lives in southwestern Montana’s Ravalli County. At 4,000’ in elevation, in a house tucked into postcard-perfect terrain, his front window faces scattered ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, along with aspens and cottonwoods sprouting along a nearby creekbank. In the distance, the Bitterroot Mountains ascend—bare dark rock hitting a heavy snow line painted white at roughly 5,000’, with peaks reaching over 10,000’.
“The language of the easement and the intent of the government are simple,” Wilkins says. “Only a bureaucrat could pretend otherwise.” (Photo by Cate Genshaw/Pacific Legal Foundation)
The beauty is deceptive, Wilkins warns. “My place was once private, just like so many other properties in this country. Some days I still can’t believe this has happened. When the public hears my story from start to finish, they’re shocked by the behavior of our government.”
In 2004, Wilkins purchased his present property: 9 acres along Robbins Gulch Road, an unpaved stretch crossing his acreage and leading to the Bitterroot National Forest. Wilkins’ land purchase included a 1962 easement granting access to the U.S. Forest Service: “…the party of the first part [landowners] does hereby grant and convey unto the party of the second part [the United States of America] and its assigns an easement and right-of-way for a road as now constructed and in place and to be reconstructed, improved, used, operated, patrolled, and maintained and known as the Robbins Gulch Road…”
As stated in the text, the easement road was exclusive to the U.S. “and its assigns.”
Also, in 1962, a clarification letter was issued from the Forest Service to then-owner, J.E. Coultas. The letter, written to Coultas by Forest Service Supervisor Harold Andersen, spelled out the purpose of the easement. Per Andersen: I shall attempt to summarize some of the questions you may have. One, Purpose of road—timber harvest. Two, Construction—reconstruction of existing road. Three, Location—along existing Robbins Gulch Road. Four, Date of Construction—probably fiscal year 1963.
“The language of the easement and the intent of the government are simple,” Wilkins says. “Only a bureaucrat could pretend otherwise.”
Red Tape Handcuffs
In 2006, the Forest Service opened Robbins Gulch Road to the public, announcing the change on a sign placed on the road’s shoulder. Alarmed, Wilkins sought Forest Service District Ranger Chuck Oliver. “He told me to relax and that the Forest Service was doing a major new travel plan,” Wilkins contends. “Oliver said I had nothing to worry about and that they were going to decommission the road shortly.”
(Citing pending litigation, the U.S. Forest Service declined a Farm Journal interview request regarding Wil Wilkins and the easement. Likewise, the Department of Justice declined comment citing ongoing litigation.)
“I ask a simple question: Do private property laws and protections still exist in this country? One thing for sure: A lot of government bureaucrats believe they don’t.” (Photo by Cate Genshaw/Pacific Legal Foundation)
“I took him at his word,” Wilkins continues. “The other officials told me the same thing—that the road would not be public. They kept me at bay with their promises and I didn’t file a lawsuit because I believed them. They worked on their travel plan for about nine years and when they got finished, they said the road was permanently public.”
“Traffic exploded along my place and brought trespassers, people shooting at my house, stealing—just an unbelievable mess. My easement, signed by the government, was ignored. In their eyes, the easement wasn’t worth the paper it was signed on.”
Wilkins’ legal nightmare continued. The Forest Service claimed Wilkins had no grounds to protest, despite the easement, because the statute of limitations had passed. When Wilkins, along with his neighbor, Jane Stanton (who possesses the same easement), attempted to sue, a federal court accepted the Forest Service’s claim regarding the expiration of the statute of limitations. Bottom line, the government said Wilkins was too late to sue and declined to hear the merits of the case.
“This is an important case for everyone in the country,” says PLF attorney Jeff McCoy. “Our government should never be able to use procedural rules to avoid the facts, text, or basic interpretation of law.” (Photo by Cate Genshaw/Pacific Legal Foundation)
“I literally couldn’t get a judge to just read the easement, because of all the red tape handcuffs the Forest Service put me in,” Wilkins details. “I’m a vet with PTSD, but my government wouldn’t give me a hearing,” Wilkins says. “The government gives the worst murderers a hearing, but if they want your land, they’ll tie you up in judicial proceeding and bleed you dry.”
“The average American would be shocked to find out how many cases are out there like mine,” he adds. “But almost all of them fade away because money runs out, people die, or they just give up hope. Not me. I’m fighting till my dying breath.”
In 2018, the Forest Service doubled down. In a May 14 letter to Wilkins, USDA General Counsel Alan Campbell made clear the government’s position: The easement is granted in general and unlimited terms for a road to be “operated” by the Forest Service. Where the National Forest lands are open to the public the Forest Service may allow the public to utilize the easement for ingress and egress to the National Forest as an implied licensee of the agency without the need for recitation in the easement of this use.
Translated: The words in the easement were insignificant.
Enter Pacific Legal Foundation.
In 2018, Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) and attorney Jeff McCoy heard of Wilkins’ plight and offered pro bono representation to Wilkins and neighboring landowner Jane Stanton.
McCoy stresses contradictions between the easement and Forest Service actions, particularly regarding “[the United States of America] and its assigns.”
“You don’t have to be a legal scholar to understand ‘assigns’ means specific people,” McCoy says. “Instead, the government is taking the position that it can ‘assign’ road access as an open invitation to all 330 million people in the country. ‘Assigns’ means timber workers, ranchers, and firefighters, but by no means 100% of the public.”
“I’ve listened to government officials say, ‘assigns’ means every person in the country,” Wilkins echoes. “If that’s true, what American in history would sign an easement if you told them from the get-go that everyone can come through their private land?”
Wil Wilkins, Blacksmith: “My easement, signed by the government, was ignored,” Wilkins says. “In their eyes, the easement wasn’t worth the paper it was signed on.” (Photo by Cate Genshaw/Pacific Legal Foundation)
In 2022, PLF and McCoy took Wilkins’ case to the Supreme Court, which agreed with Wilkins’ contentions. In a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court ordered the case back to square one in a major victory for private land rights—precisely what Wilkins wanted.
“For years,” McCoy emphasizes, “lower courts refused to hear the evidence and used procedural rules to avoid the question: What does the easement say? We have statements from Forest Service officials telling Wil Wilkins there was no need to file a suit and to just wait. The lower courts never heard any of this evidence. The Supreme Court finally said, ‘No. Everything must be heard. Make the case based on the easement and the facts.”
Wilkins says the Supreme Court decision allows him to finally roll out the truth. “All the stuff about me filing late was a sham. It was maddening not being able to present evidence because the lower courts believed the word of the Forest Service out of the gate. How many other Americans are kept from their day in court? It’s disgraceful and this isn’t about me and my tiny road anymore. This is about the rights of millions of Americans.”
Without PLF and McCoy standing in the pro bono gap, Wilkins’ case would have slipped through the cracks. The heart to fight rarely matches the finances to fight. “Most of the time, landowners must capitulate or get ruined,” McCoy says. “This is an important case for everyone in the country: Our government should never be able to use procedural rules to avoid the facts, text, or basic interpretation of law.”
“My place was once private, just like so many other properties in this country,” says Wilkins. “Some days I still can’t believe this has happened. When the public hears my story from start to finish, they’re shocked by the behavior of our government.” (Photo by Cate Genshaw/Pacific Legal Foundation)
Wilkins insists his land rights battle forces a question. “We’re at a place where the term or concept of ‘legally binding’ applies to American citizens, but certainly not the American government. I ask a simple question: Do private property laws and protections still exist in this country? One thing for sure: A lot of government bureaucrats believe they don’t.”