WOLF CREK, Mont. — Two ranches in Western Montana claim they’re owed nearly $9 million because the federal government burned their rangeland while trying to control a wildfire.
McDonough Family Land and Ingersoll Ranch of Wolf Creek, Montana, have filed a lawsuit accusing the U.S. Forest Service of intentionally igniting their property for “burnout and backfiring operations” to steer the spread of the 2017 Alice Creek Fire.
Such techniques allow firefighters to burn fuels to alter the wildfire’s path and reduce its intensity along containment lines.
The wildfire was started by a lightning storm in late July 2017 and the Forest Service used these methods on the affected properties more than a month later, the complaint said.
If not for the agency’s activities, “the ranches would have suffered no material or substantial damage as a result of the naturally ignited Alice Creek Fire,” according to the lawsuit.
Though the backfire and burnout operations were intended to affect the direction and rate of the wildfire’s spread, the plaintiffs claim the Forest Service had “safe and effective alternatives” to suppress the fire.
“Instead it chose to manage the Alice Creek Fire with land management goals primarily in mind rather than fire suppression,” the complaint alleges.
Specifically, the plaintiffs claim the federal agency wanted to reduce fuel loads while improving timber stand health, wildlife habitat and watershed quality in the 1.8 million-acre Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.
Damages from the loss of forage, timber, fences, water sources and other property came to $7.5 million for McDonough Family Land and $1.3 million for Ingersoll Ranch, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C.
The ranches have a unique “history and legacy,” as the current owners descend from the original homesteaders of the property, the complaint said. The lawsuit doesn’t specify how many acres of the ranches were burned in the fire.
“The USFS actions appropriated a benefit to it at the expense of the ranches and pre-empted their right to enjoy their property for an extended period of time,” the complaint said. “The taking also substantially diminished the fair market value of real property owned by the ranches and deprived them of its use.”
The Forest Service’s management activities forced financial burdens on the two ranches that “in all fairness and justice, should be borne by the public as a whole,” amounting to a government taking or physical invasion of property that should be compensated, the complaint said.
The EO Media Group was unable to reach a representative of the Forest Service as of press time.
The lawsuit illustrates the “complete double standard” applied to the government compared to private landowners, such as Steven and Dwight Hammond, two Oregon ranchers who served time in prison for setting fires to federal rangeland, said Brian Gregg, an attorney with the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which advocates for property rights.
“When the government does something worse, it gets away with it,” Gregg said.
Suing the federal government for an unjust taking is an “uphill battle” and often requires showing the property was completely destroyed and forever unusable, he said.
While judges and lawyers have recently pushed for more government accountability, courts have traditionally given the government the benefit of the doubt — particularly in emergency situations, Gregg said.
“Over the course of two centuries, the definition of taking has become narrow,” he said. “Courts are often more deferential to the government.”