By Michael Wright - June 10, 2019 - Originally published the Bozeman Daily Chronicle
A coalition of conservation groups has sued the U.S. Forest Service over public access to trails in the Crazy Mountains, an island range northeast of Livingston known for its complex land ownership picture and access disputes.
The lawsuit filed in federal court in Billings accuses the Forest Service of neglecting to preserve access to four trails in the range that have been blocked by landowners in the past. It also challenges a trail reroute planned for the west side of the range, arguing that forest officials skirted environmental analysis requirements in approving the project.
Friends of the Crazy Mountains, Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife Habitat, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and Skyline Sportsmen are the groups behind the suit. The groups signed onto a notice of intent to sue that was sent to the Forest Service in February. The letter outlined frustrations with trail access and requested a meeting to discuss access disputes in the Crazies, which have drawn significant public attention in the past few years.
Matthew Bishop, of the Western Environmental Law Center, one of the attorneys representing the groups, said the meeting request was denied, so they’re forging ahead with a lawsuit.
“This is really a last resort measure,” Bishop said of the lawsuit. “We don’t have a lot of other options.”
Marna Daley, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said in an email that the agency couldn’t comment directly on the lawsuit because they hadn’t seen the complaint yet. But she said they feel like they’ve been making progress in the Crazies by working with landowners all over the range. The proposed reroute on the west side is a top priority, and Daley said they’ve made progress toward a land exchange proposal in the southern part of the range and some progress toward long-term public access on the east side.
“The agency believes that working respectfully toward collaborative solutions that address landowner and stakeholder interests is always the best approach when possible,” Daley said.
Access disputes between landowners, the Forest Service and trail users have proliferated in the Crazies for years. Some landowners have blocked access to trails they believe are private but that the Forest Service and others believe are public. One Bozeman hunter was cited for trespassing in 2016 while using a trail he believed to be public, and a local district ranger was briefly reassigned after landowners raised concerns with his handling of such disputes.
Four trails are named in the suit — Porcupine Lowline (No. 267), Elk Creek (No. 195), East Trunk (No. 115/136) and Sweet Grass (No. 122). Porcupine and Elk Creek are on the west side of the range, the others are on the east side.
The groups say the trails are well-known and mapped as public, and that there’s a long history of use by the public and the Forest Service. But the complaint says landowners have obstructed access to the trails over the years in a variety of ways.
“Plaintiffs and members of the public are now confronted with locked gates and barbed wire on the trails,” the complaint reads. “They also routinely encounter intimidating ‘private property,’ ‘no trespassing,’ and ‘no forest service access’ signs at trailheads and along the four trails.”
The complaint argues that the Forest Service is violating its travel plan by not protecting public access to the trails and instead seeking collaboration with landowners. It also raises concerns with the agency’s preference for negotiating with landowners because such talks are often closed to the public.
The coalition is also targeting the Forest Service’s proposal to reroute part of the Porcupine Lowline and Elk Creek trails near Wilsall. The agency proposed relinquishing its public access rights to a few miles of trail that passes through private land and building a new trail mostly on public land. A landowner has blocked public access to the old trail for years.
The coalition is challenging the agency’s decision to forgo a deeper environmental analysis of the project. Forest officials believe the proposal was covered by an environmental analysis of the forest’s travel plan, which they think allows them to proceed without doing a new analysis of the reroute. The coalition disagrees, arguing that the work requires further assessment before it goes forward.
Daley said they expect to begin construction on the new trail in July. Bishop said they would monitor the situation closely and consider filing an injunction to block construction.