By Michael Wright - July 2, 2019 - Originally published in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle
A coalition of conservation groups wants a federal judge to block construction on a new trail in the Crazy Mountains while he mulls their lawsuit over access to the isolated mountain range.
In an injunction request filed Friday, attorneys representing five groups that sued over public access to four trails in the range asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Cavan to bar construction of the Porcupine Ibex Trail, a Forest Service project that would reroute an old trail where a landowner had blocked public access, until a decision is made in their lawsuit.
The request was filed a week after the Custer Gallatin National Forest awarded a contract worth about $27,000 to Bo Trails Inc. to build the new trail and obliterate parts of the old trail.
In the brief accompanying the injunction request, the groups argue that the Forest Service approved the trail in a way that skirted public and environmental review. They also argue that forging ahead with trail construction could harm big game habitat and that the agency should protect access to the old trails instead.
Ryan Busse, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers North American board chair, said in a news release that the agency has to consider public input and habitat impacts before a decision like this.
“Our injunction simply seeks to ensure that the Forest Service follows its own established protocol,” Busse said.
Marna Daley, a Custer Gallatin National Forest spokeswoman, declined to comment on the injunction request. The Forest Service has said it believes the Porcubine-Ibex reroute is a significant step forward in dealing with access disputes in the Crazies, an island range known for disputes over public access to several trails and a complex checkerboard land ownership pattern.
The suit the five groups filed accuses the Forest Service of failing to protect access to four trails — the East Trunk (No. 115/136), Sweet Grass (No. 122), Elk Creek (No. 195) and Porcupine Lowline (No. 267). The Porcupine Ibex project would reroute parts of the Elk Creek and Porcupine Lowline trails, and the suit also argues that the Forest Service didn’t conduct an adequate environmental analysis of the reroute.
Plans for the reroute first surfaced in 2018. Under the plan, the Forest Service would abandon its claim to public access rights on a few miles of trail that crosses private property in exchange for a shorter private land easement for the new trail.
Several groups hailed the proposal as a major success when it was first released, seeing it as meaningful collaboration between access advocates and landowners. But many critics remained, including Friends of the Crazy Mountains and Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife Habitat, and they argued that it was wrong for the Forest Service to relinquish the old access rights and that the new trail would be steeper and not as accessible for all users.
The release of the plans signaled the opening of an initial public comment period on the reroute, a first step in an environmental analysis of a project. But instead of completing an environmental assessment or categorical exclusion for the new trail, the Forest Service stopped that analysis. The agency felt analysis of the forest travel plan covered the reroute and that a deeper look wasn’t needed.
The groups disagree, arguing that there was no mention of the reroute in the travel plan. They argue that the travel plan calls for protecting access to the existing trails, not building new trail to replace them.
In the brief accompanying the injunction request, the groups argue that ending the analysis meant there was no serious look at the environmental impact of the reroute. They also argue that, after the initial comment period, the agency made a “behind-closed-door decision” to change the original trail route proposal, instead moving it to a higher elevation.
“This means the Ibex project — as currently designed, authorized, and approved by the Service — was never vetted for public review and comment,” the groups’ attorneys wrote.