By Ryan Busse - March 29, 2019 - Originally published in the Missoulian
On Aug. 10, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Crazy Mountain Forest Reserve and declared that it should be for “the use and benefit of the people.” This and other similar visionary actions resulted in the most treasured of American ideals: the legal right of citizens to access our vast public lands. Areas where legal access is established and maintained is our birthright. Unfortunately, this can change at a moment’s notice — and, worse, reduced access can become permanent if not challenged.
Across the West, access points, typically trails or roads, are being illegally blocked and impeded, and so your right to enter the lands you own is being diminished. This is happening to several trails in the Crazy Mountains here in Montana. If they remain blocked and no longer used, we all may lose the opportunity to hunt, hike, roam and enjoy our public lands — places we as Americans own — with our friends and family. Consequently, a coalition of Montanans has united to seek remedy for all Americans.
The concept that citizens of a country can own something and share in its management through government is unique the world over. American national forest lands are managed by the U.S. Forest Service on behalf of the public. The Forest Service is responsible for management and maintaining access through trail maintenance, signage and law enforcement so that we — the public — can use and enjoy these lands. Without the Forest Service executing that charge, our rights may be impeded and our public access erased. Under the concept of trail “abandonment,” some legal public accesses may be eliminated if the managing agency does not ensure that these access points are open and protected and if public use ceases.
When it comes to the Crazy Mountains, time is of the essence. After decades of open and legal use, the Forest Service has recently allowed legal access points to be blocked on both the east and west sides of the Crazy Mountains, thereby undermining the public’s ability to hunt, fish and recreate on our national forest lands. In place of these public access opportunities are locked gates. A broad coalition of concerned individuals and groups, including Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, has notified the Forest Service of our desire for these trails to be reopened, and our intent to sue if necessary.
There have been recent efforts by some to move a trail on the west side with the hope of reopening it. During these discussions the legally established access points have remained closed as if hostage to a particular outcome. Our coalition supports clearly defined mechanisms in Forest Service policy for improving or modifying access trails. We may well support the promised improvements, but change should never be forced by the extortion of blocked access.
It has been reported that our coalition “intends” to sue. The fact is that most Americans do not enjoy engaging in lawsuits. We are not seeking to file one here. Rather we prefer to operate within the bounds of established Forest Service procedure, keeping access points open and working to resolve conflicts with users and surrounding landowners. If access were restored in the Crazies we would celebrate. But if those trails and roads are not opened, we will utilize another American birthright: Our national system of laws. Thankfully this remedy is available to the common citizen when our legal rights are violated.
We hope that the Forest Service will protect every citizen’s right to access these trails. We ask they be reopened immediately and that the Forest Service manage them as legal access points. There should be no doubt that we wish to spend our time on our public lands rather than in court.
Ryan Busse is the North American board chair of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He lives in Kalispell.