By Justin Post - June 11, 2019 - Originally published in The Livingston Enterprise
Four conservation groups sued the U.S. Forest Service on Monday over public access to four trails in the Crazy Mountains.
The 114-page lawsuit argues in part that the federal agency is failing to follow its own policy and direction to resolve disputes between members of the public seeking to access the four trails and landowners who want to keep them out.
The lawsuit was filed by the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Friends of the Crazy Mountains, Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife and Habitat and the Buttebased Skyline Sportsmen Association. They are represented by the Western Environmental Law Center and the Drake Law Firm, according to a news release.
The groups claim the four trails — the Porcupine Lowline trail and Elk Creek trail on the west side of the Crazy Mountains, and the East Trunk trail and Sweet Grass trail on the eastside — are longtime National Forest System trails. The groups argue the four trails were created in the late 1800s and early 1900s, have been managed and maintained in the past by Forest Service employees and have long been used by the public.
The groups also claim that the four trails are depicted as public on visitor maps prepared for the Crazy Mountains, and that the use and location of the four trails was “discussed, analyzed and vetted” with the public while preparing the 1986 Gallatin National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan and again during the 2006 Gallatin Travel Management Plan.
“Despite this fact, over the years, some local landowners and/ or their agents have taken steps to obstruct Plaintiffs and other members of the public’s ability to access and use the four trails,” the lawsuit states. “These efforts have recently intensified.”
Their lawsuit claims their members, as well as members of the public, “are now confronted with locked gates and barbed wire on the trails. They also routinely encounter intimidating ‘private property,’ ‘no trespassing,’ and ‘no forest service access’ signs at trailheads and along the four trails.”
The public is asked in some areas to request permission from landowners and sign in before using the four trails, the suit states.
“Making matters worse, the National Forest System trail signs, markers and blazes on four trails are often covered up, torn down, damaged and/or removed,” the lawsuit states. “Some portions of the four trails are also now difficult to follow due to efforts by landowners (to) cover up and obliterate the trails.”
This wasn’t always the case, the suit states.
The Forest Service in previous years worked to maintain, manage and protect public access to the four trails in accordance to its travel plan, taking obstruction issues up with landowners.
That changed in 2017, after years of contention between landowners, the agency and other groups, when the Forest Service decided to quit managing the four trails, the lawsuit states.
And on June 16, 2017, District Ranger Alex Sienkiewicz was temporarily removed from his post just over a year after sending an internal email instructing staff working in the Crazies to “NEVER ask permission” of landowners to use Forest Service trails, according to the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, the district ranger advised staff not to tell the public to ask permission to use the trails either.
“These are historic public access routes,” the lawsuit states, quoting from the Sienkiewicz internal email. “By asking permission, one undermines public access rights and plays into their lawyers’ trap of establishing a history of permissive access.”
The groups who filed Monday’s lawsuit notified the Forest Service on Feb. 13 that they intended to sue the agency if it didn’t begin working to resolve the ongoing access disputes.
“The upper levels of the Forest Service chose not to respond or address our local public access concerns and repeated complaints of obstruction,” Brad Wilson of Friends of the Crazy Mountains, a retired Park County assistant road supervisor and deputy sheriff, said in a news release. “Due to the Forest Service’s negligence, we had no choice but to appeal to the court.”
Marna Daley, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service, sees it differently.
“We believe we have taken significant steps forward to securing long term public access in the Crazy Mountains,” Daley told The Livingston Enterprise on Tuesday.
The agency is working to secure public access through a land exchange in the south Crazies. The land exchange would consolidate some of the checkerboard land ownership in the south Crazies and secure public easements, she said.
And on the east side, the Forest Service is working with multiple landowners for land exchanges and easements for public trail access into the Crazies, Daley said.
“We’re very grateful to all of the stakeholders and all of the landowners who have come to the table to resolve the access issues in the Crazy Mountains,” she said.
She said the agency’s highest priority is finishing a negotiated reroute of the Porcupine Lowline trail. The project, which is expected to begin in mid-July, includes building a new trail that will be located primarily on the national forest.
Monday’s lawsuit, however, takes issue with the agency’s decision to reroute the Porcupine Lowline trail and “relinquish” public access rights on portions of that trail and Elk Creek trail.
“This decision emerged from the Service’s prolonged negotiations with the landowners and was made in the absence of completing a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis and without ensuring compliance with its forest plan or travel plan,” the lawsuit states.
The groups are challenging the agency’s decision to re-route the trails and its “failure” to maintain and manage the four trails outlined in the suit.
“Since 2017, the Service has effectively abandoned its responsibility to manage the four trails for public access,” the lawsuit states.
Daley declined to comment on specific allegations in the lawsuit, but said the Forest Service is reviewing the document.
“We are working our way through the lawsuit and looking at the components of it,” she said.