By Sportsmen and Sportswomen Consortium - August 7, 2020 - Originally published in the Missoula Current
Finally, after more than 80 years of disagreements, a combination of legal pressures and moneyed interests has amplified the conversation about public access on the east side of Montana’s Crazy Mountains. However, a proposal being called a “Made in Montana” compromise is one group’s idea of an equitable land swap that, unfortunately, falls short of protecting access to our public lands.
The Yellowstone Club, an exclusive community in Big Sky, Montana, is seeking a land swap with the U.S. Forest Service so they can expand their skiable terrain. However, leadership at the Custer-Gallatin National Forest told the Yellowstone Club that they would not consider any land swaps until access issues in the Crazies were solved. So, the Yellowstone Club got out their checkbook and hired consultants who began asking, “How much and to whom?”
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.
These consultants soon realized many of the access concerns in the Crazies are currently being litigated because the Forest Service is not doing its job to protect public access on these public trails and its recent decision to abandon these public trails is unacceptable.
This put the Forest Service in a tough spot. It also put pressure on those landowners blocking public access to find a fast solution. Indeed, their options are limited because: (1) they lost their 2007 lawsuit against the Forest Service’s travel plan (for depicting and pronouncing these trails as public); and (2) the 12-year statute of limitations on any quiet title action they could have pursued against the agency has expired.
That’s how we find ourselves with a proposed land swap and new 22-mile trail in the Crazies paid for entirely by the Yellowstone Club.
To be fair, there are some things to like about the proposal. The addition and consolidation of public lands, providing certainty for the public and private landowners in the southeast portion of the proposal, deserves our support. However, those benefits do not outweigh the proposal’s failure to achieve its ultimate goal: resolving public access on the east side of the Crazies.
Essentially the proposal would forfeit the historic public access into the Sweet Grass drainage and its access to creek-front, low-lying, wildlife-abundant public lands – one of the most productive and over-objective elk areas in the district – and replace it with a 22-mile higher elevation trail accessed from Half Moon Campground in Big Timber Creek drainage.
Some claim that access along the historic Sweet Grass Trail #122 is open (as depicted on Forest Service maps) and the proposal preserves the status quo. The reality is the adjacent landowners are attempting to illegally block all public access by requiring approval to use the National Forest trails.
This is a strategy is designed to erode the public’s rights on a public right-of-way. A trail is not “open to the public” if access can be granted or rescinded at the whims of a landowner. Without a written guarantee ensuring public access down Sweet Grass Trail #122, the public must assume the status quo and that public access into the Sweet Grass drainage will be obstructed.
A selling point by land swap proponents is that the option to litigate Sweet Grass has specifically been left on the table, as if it were a gift they have provided to the general public. Litigation is a right provided by the U.S. Constitution – not a gift from those providing cover for this bad land trade. Nor should litigation be necessary if the Forest Service was simply doing its job and protecting public access on our public trails to our public lands.
The current east side proposal is the perfect time for the public to draw a line and demand what is rightfully ours. Montanans will happily negotiate trail relocation, but only after our public rights are recognized on existing trails.
When this proposal was being developed, many of us expressed support for portions of it and concerns with sacrificing lands containing prime habitat along Sweet Grass Creek (sections 8 and 10) and the additional loss of Sweet Grass Trail #122. Our concerns – and our suggested solutions – were dismissed.
We now have an incredible opportunity to resolve longstanding access disputes on the east side of the Crazies without having to resort to the courts. However, the current proposal would establish one public access funnel on the entire east side of the Crazies. It should not be supported by public landowners who value their rights to access their own land unhindered, free of charge and without intimidation. The only party that should support this is the private landowners who stand to gain some of the best elk habitat in the state and exclusive access to our public lands and resources.
On the surface, this land swap may sound like a good deal for the public but scratch that surface and one finds political interference, irresponsible Forest Service leadership, greed, and a group promoting a compromise far from “Made in Montana” and far from the public’s interest.
While we applaud the efforts of all involved, the current proposal is the equivalent of buying a car with three wheels: Without the fourth wheel, it doesn’t matter how shiny the car is. The ride will be rough for the buyer.
This letter was written and endorsed by the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers; Park County Rod & Gun Club; Enhancing Montana’s Habitat & Wildlife; Skyline Sportsman; Montana Bowhunters Association; Hellgate Hunters & Anglers; Montana Sportsmen Alliance; Traditional Bowhunters of Montana; Helena Hunters & Anglers; and Friends of the Crazy Mountains.