A 2019 lawsuit brought by public land access advocates over the Forest Service’s handling of four disputed trails in the Crazy Mountains is nearing resolution, and the result could have national implications. The plaintiffs and defendants have filed their last round of major briefs and the U.S. District Court in Billings is expected to schedule an oral argument or issue a decision based on the parties’ filings in the coming months. The court’s decision is expected to set the tone for how the federal government handles future access disputes.
The plaintiffs, a consortium of sporting and conservation groups, sued the Forest Service on the grounds that the agency has failed to maintain public access on historic trails with prescriptive easements in violation of its own written policies and federal laws governing its conduct. Prescriptive easements, sometimes called historic or unperfected easements, involve right-of-way claims without an easement recorded on the deed. Prescriptive easements are common on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land, particularly in the West, where the expansion of railroads in the late 1800s left a legacy of checkerboard land ownership that continues to complicate land management.
In the most recent round of court filings, the government argues that even if the Forest Service once had workable claims to establish perfected easements on trails traversing private property, those claims are “likely non-viable” due to landowners blocking access. The agency’s response to landowner obstructions such as locked gates and no trespassing signs goes to the heart of the lawsuit. Plaintiffs Friends of the Crazy Mountains, the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Skyline Sportsmen and Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife and Habitat say the Forest Service abdicated a “non-discretionary” duty outlined in its 2006 travel plan by allowing landowners to block access to the trails, three of which have been in public use for more than a century.
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