By Rachel Cramer - August 27, 2020 - Originally published at Montana Public Radio
A group of hunting and conservation organizations say a proposed land swap and new trail in the Crazy Mountains falls short of protecting access to some of the best public land in Montana.
In July, an informal coalition of ranchers, tribal representatives, hunters and conservationists called the Crazy Mountain Access Project released a proposal they say will improve public land access and appease landowners, put to rest a disputed trail that passes through a patchwork of public and private land and make it easier for Crow tribal members to visit a sacred site.
The proposal includes land swaps on the eastern side of the Crazies to consolidate public and private land. It would add a new 22 mile trail, which would be funded by the Yellowstone Club in Big Sky as part of a negotiation for a second land swap in the Madison Range.
But not everyone’s on board.
Ten organizations wrote a letter earlier this month in opposition to the Crazy Mountain Access Project, which is accepting public comment through Aug. 31.
“One of our main tenants of our mission is to fight for public access,” Sullivan said.
That’s John Sullivan, chairman of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA). He says BHA supports some aspects of this new proposal, like the consolidation of public and private land in the Crazies. But he says the plan, as it sits now, is not a fair trade.
“But what the public gives up in return is less access. We’re giving up two public trails in return for one. The access into Sweet Grass Canyon, which is really important, is basically going to be abandoned,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan says Sweet Grass Canyon is on par with Glacier National Park.
“It’s some of the best public land in Montana. It is absolutely stunning country. The creek is gorgeous. The mountains, the big hills, the sweeping drainage,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan says the canyon has some of the best elk habitat in the state. With the Crazy Mountain Access Project’s proposal, sections of public land in that drainage would be swapped for areas at higher elevation.
He says the northeast area of the Crazies would also be harder to access because unlike the historic East Trunk Trail, the new 22 mile trail wouldn’t connect to a road near Sweet Grass Canyon.
The Crazy Mountain Access Project says the public’s right to use the East Trunk Trail is disputable because the Forest Service does not hold recorded easements for that trail and that its location on maps has changed repeatedly over time.
“Well, I think that’s debatable. I can point to a mountain of evidence that we have that would show the public has a prescriptive easement on that trail,” Sullivan said.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is part of an ongoing lawsuit against the Forest Service, alleging the agency neglected to preserve access to four other trails blocked by landowners.
“The public land owner in Havre, the public land owner in Florida, in New York, in Arizona, California, they all have the same rights on these public grounds as the residents in Livingston and Big Timber so it’s important we consider the legacy here,” Sullivan said.
The groups that oppose the Crazy Mountain Access Project also say they’re concerned that the public input and environmental review process for the land swaps and new trail could be steamrolled if approved by U.S. Congress rather than the Forest Service.
Erica Lighthiser with the Crazy Mountain Access Project told YPR in previous reporting that if Congress decided to take on this proposal, it would have its own public hearing process.
She added the environmental analysis is required whether the plan is approved by Congress or the Forest Service.