The Blaine County commissioners need more time—and some added expertise—to weigh the future of a road up Imperial Gulch, continuing Tuesday’s three-and-a-half-hour hearing until a formal third-party report can make sense of the evidence.
The conflict over the tributary of Greenhorn Gulch, west of state Highway 75 between Ketchum and Hailey, forms the latest feature in a growing battleground that pits private property rights—especially the privileges afforded owners under county law—against recreational access to public land.
This week’s deliberation is the second road validation hearing to reach the board this fall. And, like the case of Lee’s Gulch Road near Bellevue, the decision to claim this old mining route relies on nearly 140 years of historical records—as well as more modern concerns regarding access to public lands.
For the county to validate the road, both the documentation and “public interest,” vaguely defined in Idaho code, must align.
Jae Hill, a former planner for the city of Sun Valley, and Kyle Kimball, a licensed guide and owner of Western Adventure Tours, each own a lot on old mining claims up Imperial Gulch. For them, the interest is clear: Without a maintained road, they can’t get up to their properties—and, they say, others can’t reach the national forest land beyond.
The problem is pronounced in the winter. Per its founding documents, the Greenhorn subdivision at the mouth of the road is required to maintain public access to the side canyons around the main drainage. And, according to Ed Lawson, the Greenhorn Gulch Homeowners Association’s attorney, it does, allowing recreators to use easements through lots. But it isn’t required to provide parking in its subdivision, and it doesn’t; so, without a plowed route off the private land, the only way in is to leave a car at a park-and-ride by state Highway 75.
Hill leases a portion of the right of way from the BLM, which allows him to traverse it, but not plow. The county, he told the Idaho Mountain Express, could negotiate a better deal as it has elsewhere, opening up four-season access.
Access is a buzzword around Idaho, and Hill has found support under its banner. An online petition titled “Keep Imperial Gulch Road Public” has garnered some 2,800 signatures backing his and Kimball’s case.
“They have been harassing people for years, trying to keep those side canyons for themselves,” Kimball, who holds a county permit to run commercial tours from his lot, told the commissioners about the nearby landowners. “They’re in objection to everything anyone does out there.”
Lawson, though, called the accusation a false flag. Greenhorn Gulch remains a popular spot for recreators, he said, with about 50 cars worth taking the subdivision’s road to access the land every day. On Tuesday, he accused Hill of using a buzzword—public access—for his private gain.
“What Mr. Hill is asking for is exclusively for his own benefit,” Lawson told the board. “There is no value to the public.”
Greenhorn resident Peter Dembergh echoed the claim.
“Changing the road’s status will have no effect on the access that exists,” he said, because people can already use it whenever they want to. “It’s a huge burden to the taxpayers of Blaine County for the benefit of two individuals. To me, it seems exorbitant and unnecessary.”
But Hill said it wouldn’t cost anything. In an interview, Hill said that both he and Kimball would pay for the upkeep, and are in the process of encumbering their properties with the cost of maintaining and plowing the Imperial Gulch road in perpetuity “once they get on solid legal footing” with the right of way.
From there, it gets technical. Laws governing these old mining roads date back to the Old West, before Idaho became a state. The relevant question is whether Imperial Gulch Road can be classified as a “highway” under federal Revised Statute 2477, which in 1866 granted roads to local jurisdictions. Hill says it is. If so, Idaho code says the county can validate the road without having to maintain it for vehicles, and has no liability for injury or damages that occur to people traveling it.
That could make the board’s decision easier. If the county validates the road without the RS 2477 protection, it would have to maintain it to avoid losing the right of way.
To find out, the commissioners decided to seek a neutral expert to review the documentation, which has been collected almost exclusively by Hill. The process might take months. For the board, though, it’s worth the time.
“While we want to make a timely decision, it’s more important to make the right decision,” Commissioner Angenie McCleary said.