By John Sullivan III - June 16, 2019 - Originally published in the Montana Standard.
As Americans, we should be passionate about property rights – for both private land owners and public land owners. Our U.S. public lands are property owned by all American citizens, and a number of federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, are charged with managing these lands on our behalf. If the Forest Service or another management agency falls short in upholding its duty as our public land manager, it should expect to be held accountable.
On June 10, the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers joined a coalition of Montana conservation groups in a suit against the Forest Service for failing to do its job and maintain four established public trails in the Crazy Mountains. Generations of Montana sportsmen and women traditionally access the Crazies to hunt, fish and otherwise enjoy time afield with their friends and families. Now, illegal attempts are being taken to obstruct legal public access into four major trails in the southern Crazy Mountains.
Much of the land in the Crazy Mountains left public ownership when it was granted to the railroad companies as payment for building the transcontinental railroad. With that change in ownership came easements, both deeded and prescriptive, allowing the public to access these lands. While these easements can be a source of friction between public land users and private landowners, that in no way diminishes their importance to the public. Easements like these cannot be treated as irrelevant by politicians and policy makers or wished away by private landowners who choose to disregard the stipulations that came with the property they purchased.
Access in the Crazies has been contentious for a generation; however, the four trails now at issue have recently been litigated and their legal status determined by a court. In its 2006 travel management plan, which is currently in effect in the Crazies, the Forest Service identified these trails as legal, public trails and reaffirmed its commitment and responsibility to keeping them open for public use. In 2007, the Forest Service was sued in part by neighboring landowners because these trails were marked as legal public trails within the travel management plan. The Forest Service defended its position that these trails are legal and public — and won.
Maintaining the public’s legal, traditional access opportunities in the Crazies is our coalition’s objective. Our legal action hinges on the Forest Service’s continued lack of progress and recent unresponsiveness regarding maintaining the public’s right to access public lands and waters in the region.
The progression to legal action is regrettable, but it has become necessary. Our coalition made the decision to take legal action against the Forest Service only after exhausting a number of other paths. The USFS plays a vital role in administering U.S. public lands and waters, and we respect the hardworking Forest Service employees charged with managing these publicly owned resources.
Respect for property rights, both public and private, is at the core of our coalition’s values. The Forest Service’s recent inaction in response to landowners’ attempted pirating of public access in the Crazies is a clear threat to Montana’s citizens and our outdoor heritage. This is a path we cannot accept. We will step up and defend and preserve our right to access public lands through traditional public access points.
Stand with us now in asking the Forest Service to maintain these access points. The future of Montana’s public lands depends on us voicing our unequivocal support for public access and opportunity.
John B. Sullivan III chairs the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and is a resident of Missoula. MT BHA, along with Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife and Habitat, Friends of the Crazy Mountains and Skyline Sportsmen, are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit over public access in the Crazies.