In the West, it’s called “the checkerboard” – one square mile of public land (640 acres, called a section) then one square mile of private – a direct result of frontier-era policies where the federal government gave away millions of acres of land, some to homesteaders but many to politically connected industries such as the railroads and timber companies. The idea, beyond just enriching a privileged few and scoring political power, was to encourage development of the West – timber for railroad ties and mining supports and lumber mills. The result, in our modern U.S., is a tangle of ownership and, sometimes, an access and land management nightmare.
The Crazy Mountains of Montana are one such landscape, a garbled mix of public and private sections, and one where private landowners seem to be playing another old game from the frontier era: blocking access to public lands by controlling sections of private land that are, due to terrain or other restrictions, the only way to get there. For decades in the Crazies, the U.S. Forest Service fought (including a win in court) to keep a few trails across private land open to public use, ensuring public access to thousands of acres of public land hiking, hunting and fishing. In 2016, the political winds changed, and the Forest Service suddenly ceased protecting the public’s right to use these trails. Why? BHA President and CEO Land Tawney and BHA Montana Chair John Sullivan explain why it took a lawsuit from BHA to try and answer that question. As Sullivan says, the fight for public lands includes holding our public land management agencies accountable, and it includes demanding transparency in decisions made about access to and management of public lands. De facto privatization of public lands, the checkerboard, prescriptive easements for the public to cross private land to public, the politicization of access and questions about management by public lands’ agencies. …What happens in the Crazies resonates throughout America’s public lands debates. In essence, the battle for access to the Crazies is a microcosm of what BHA is all about.