A Public-Access Lawsuit in Montana’s Crazy Mountains Claims Forest Service Is Catering to Private Landowners

The U.S. District Court in Billings, Montana, convened yesterday to hear arguments in a lawsuit regarding public access to established hiking trails in Montana’s Crazy Mountains. The lawsuit—which was filed against the U.S. Forest Service by Friends of the Crazy Mountains, the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife and Habitat, and the Skyline Sportsmen’s Association in June 2019—contends that the Forest Service is abdicating its duty to uphold and defend public access to established trails in the Crazy Mountains.

On its surface, the lawsuit deals with four trails in the Custer Gallatin National Forest that wind through public and privately-owned lands in the Crazies. The Lowline Porcupine (No. 267), Elk Creek (No. 195), Sweetgrass (No. 122), and East Trunk (No. 136) Trails have long been points of contention as private landowners have continued to block the public’s access to these trails by putting up obstructions, locking gates, and removing signs.

The coalition of plaintiffs contends that these established trails have been used by the public for nearly a century, and that up until about five years ago, the USFS had staunchly defended the public’s ability to access these trails. The coalition maintains that since then, the Forest Service has been unwilling to uphold and defend this public access—and has instead chosen to work directly with private landowners to reach a compromise. This heated controversy between public access advocates and the federal agency finally boiled over into a lawsuit when advocates learned that the USFS decided to re-route the Lowline Porcupine Trail without involving the public in its decision. (That re-route, which shifted the trail over to the east and onto federally owned land was completed last summer, and the trail was renamed the Porcupine Ibex Trail.)

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