Missouri woman mired in years long struggle with feds over road accessing her property

Pam Becker says she can’t get a loan to build a home on her land in Douglas County without a permanent permit to use a road owned by the U.S. Forest Service

By: - October 26, 2021 9:00 am

This forest road in southern Missouri is the center of a battle between a Douglas County landowner and the U.S. Forest Service (Rebecca Rivas/Missouri Independent).

As a young girl in the 1930s, Opal Brixey would walk down a narrow road, lined with tall oak trees and thick brush to get to a one-room schoolhouse.

The road, nestled in the woods of Douglas County in southern Missouri, also led down to Mr. Johnson’s sawmill and to a few homes in the hollow. 

The community used it as a wagon road before she was born, Brixey’s father had told her. 

Brixey died in March 2020. She was among the last living witnesses of this road’s history — a history that has become the center of a long battle between one Douglas County property owner and the U.S. Forest Service. 

That landowner is Pam Becker, who has owned the property for almost 20 years. Problem is, the only road to get to her property is located on a swath of Mark Twain National Forest — and the forest service wants to charge her to use it.

Becker connected with Brixey after she began searching for anyone who was born in 1925 or earlier and had recollection of the road before the federal government bought it in 1935.

Eight years ago, the U.S. Forest Service told her that if she wanted to use the road to access her home, she had to pay an annual $99 fee.

“I was shocked,” Becker said.

She later learned that two of her neighbors were told that their driveways or fences were sitting on forest land, and they had to obtain these “special use permits” as well. Now she knows that there are nearly 500 private road authorizations across Mark Twain National Forest, where about 50 percent of the land within the forest’s administrative boundaries is privately-owned.

“This isn’t just me and a handful of neighbors,” Becker said.  “This is all around the southeast region of the state. This is government overreach.”

The permit cost is five times her annual property tax bill, Becker said, but that’s not her biggest problem. 

The financial institutions she banks with won’t loan to her if she only has a permit to access the property — because the permit wouldn’t transfer to the bank if they had to take possession of the land. That means she can’t get a loan to build a home on the property.

And if she passes down the property, her daughter would inherit the same problem.

The forest service told her she has another option. If she can prove that the road existed 10 years before the federal government obtained the property to create the national forest in March 1935, then they can grant her permanent access to her land.

And thus, Becker set off on her quixotic quest for the history of the only road accessing her property.

Pam Becker walks on the only road to get to her property in southern Missouri, which is owned by the national forest service (Photo submitted).

Her search has taken her to libraries, historical societies, attorneys and surveyors. 

The county courthouse would be the likely place to find that map, but Douglas County’s courthouses in the late 1800s had an interesting history of being burned to the ground during political feuds. For decades up until 1935, the county had used a schoolhouse to store records. 

And the map she needs isn’t among the records that made it through those tumultuous years. Not even the railroad company had the maps Becker needed.

“I was talking to people, looking through books and binders and you name it,” Becker said. “I mean I was possessed. I was on a mission.”

She finally found Brixey, along with another witness, and she’s hoping this time it will be enough.  

“The road had always been there,” Brixey said in an affidavit from Aug. 9, 2018.

In Douglas County, like many communities, families often pass down land from generation to generation, and their communities are like “clans,” said several residents interviewed by The Independent, where any encroachment is seen as an attack. 

But, the forest service is equally protective of its land. 

“You, as citizens who own this land, you want the Forest Service to be diligent, right?” said retired district ranger Thom Haines, who served nearly 20 years at Mark Twain National Forest. “There’s that side of the argument, too. You don’t want them just giving it away willy nilly.” 

A desperate time

Larry Smith visits with neighbors Lloyd Elbert and Pam Becker in Douglas County (Rebecca Rivas/Missouri Independent).

The clash that’s playing out today began with some missteps when the forest service bought the land in the 1930s. As families sold their land as an act of survival during the Great Depression, the rangers failed to note who had access to the roads.

“It was definitely something that was missed,” Haines said.

But it was a challenging time. The forest service thought they were going to be getting land from logging companies and the railroads to create Mark Twain National Forest, but instead the land was coming from distressed and bankrupt farmers and tenants who needed help, historians say.  

“The agency had become involved in a completely new role — one of trying to help solve the social and economic problems of individual landowners trying to hold on to a way of life in some of the most economically depressed areas of the country,” wrote James Halpern, in a paper about Mark Twain National Forest’s history. 

But that’s not exactly how longtime residents remember the history. 

Barb Adams, whose family has owned land in Douglas County for several generations, said people lost their homes because they couldn’t pay their taxes. And the forest service took advantage of that. 

“They bought up a lot of properties, I say, off of people’s poorness in the 30s — off their blood, sweat and tears,” Adams said. 

Before Haines retired in 2019, the hardest and most time-consuming part of his job was addressing the messy negotiations of the 1930s that continue to impact people’s lives today. 

Back then, the forest service would approach families about buying their land, and sometimes they would only sell a portion that they didn’t want. 

“But they never said, ‘Oh by the way, Farmer Judy, this is how she gets to her property through this road,’” Haines said. 

They never recorded that the road was the legal access for some residents to get to their property. So years later when heirs showed up, Haines said, they are surprised that the road to the property was on forest land. 

Like Becker, if the grandchildren don’t want to pay the annual fee, then they have the burden of doing the research to prove the road existed 10 years before the forest service bought the land in the 1930s. 

“If they go to the aerial photos or go to the old deed book at the county and they can show that old road, then they’ll get a prescriptive (easement),” Haines said. “If they can’t show that and they are landlocked, then they can get a special use permit.”

When Becker first set out to obtain a prescriptive easement, or permanent use of the road without any fees, the forest service advised her in a 2013 email that the “best form of evidence would be signed and notarized affidavits from local citizens testifying from personal knowledge that the road was used to access your property.”

So, her first request in 2014 included testimony from the late James Smith, from whom she bought the land in 2002. Smith grew up on his family’s land right next door, and his grandfather — who bought the land in 1912 — raised his family there as well. 

It took three years to get her first rejection letter for prescriptive rights. In the letter, the forest service told her that her request was rejected because, “the persons making affidavit were not born in 1925.”

Now it’s been three years since filed her appeal, which includes Brixey’s testimony — who was born in 1925. Becker’s still waiting for a response.

What Becker is fighting for is a long process, Haines said, because prescriptive easements are very rare. The special use permits are much more straightforward and process relatively faster, he said. A spokesman for the forest service explained that it can generally take six months to a year to process the permit requests.

The special use program is the forest service’s only legal remedy for these complicated situations, which came out of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976

“The forest service’s hands are tied,” Haines said. 

The banks

Pam Becker’s land in Douglas County currently only has a mobile home for her tenant, who cares for the property. She dreams of building a home one day, if she can get a bank loan (Rebecca Rivas/Missouri Independent).

Becker bought her property because she wanted to build a home she’d live in for the rest of her life. She also dreamt of building a pavilion and small chapel that could be used as a wedding venue to supplement her retirement income. 

This has derailed my hopes and dreams, has cost enormous time and a great deal of money,” Becker said, noting that she has had to hire an attorney and a surveyor. 

When she spoke with the agents at her two local financial institutions, they both advised her that securing a loan with a special use permit wouldn’t be possible.

“We won’t make a loan secured by land unless we have access to the land,” said David Gohn, president of West Plains Bank and Trust Company. “If we were to ever foreclose and own the land, it would be worthless to us without access.”

FCS Services, a main agriculture lender in Missouri, was Becker’s next stop. A spokesman told The Independent that their attorneys hadn’t heard of these kinds of cases, but they are required to have legal access to a property before lending. 

A forest service spokesman said that it’s a “very rare occasion” that banks do not accept their authorizations, or special use permits, as legal documents for legal access. However, they don’t track or share lists of the financial institutions that those individuals are working with for loans.

The special use permits are good for 20 years before they need to be renewed, but they don’t transfer to the next owner which is the crux of the problem for lending institutions.

Faunlee Smith, a title insurance closing agent in Douglas County, has dealt with the special use permits before — and so has her grandmother, who was the title agent she apprenticed under. Smith said she can’t insure access to the property on title policy.

And she doesn’t know of a bank that will give a loan to people without that access insured. 

“They really want it cleaned up if they’re going to loan money on it,” she said. 

As a local resident, Smith is among those who believe the forest service makes this process intentionally difficult. 

“That way you’ll get tired of it,” she said. “You’re just like, ‘I’m just gonna sell it to them because I can’t sell to anybody else.’”

Haines has heard that sentiment repeatedly from the community, and he says it isn’t true. The forest service has to fully vet the properties that they buy to make sure there aren’t any issues such as hazardous waste or ownership challenges. 

For Becker, obtaining a permit would cause more than an inconvenience. It would disrupt her community’s long-standing tradition of keeping land in the family. 

“It limits my daughter’s inheritance by devaluing the property,” Becker said.  “Making people pay to access their own property is wrong.”

Sophie Hurwitz contributed to this report.

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.