Public Land Advocates Appeal Anti-Access Ruling in Crazy Mountains Lawsuit

News for Immediate Release
July 21, 2022
Contact: Katie McKalip, 406-240-9262,
[email protected]

 Coalition of sportsmen-conservationists maintains the Forest Service is abdicating its duty to uphold and defend public access to historical trails, asks the Ninth Circuit to help

HELENA, Mont. – A coalition of conservation and sportsmen’s groups, including Friends of the Crazy Mountains, the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Skyline Sportsmen, and Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife and Habitat, is appealing a recent federal court ruling in a lawsuit over public access opportunities in the Crazy Mountains in south-central Montana.

In March, Judge Susan Watters of the U.S. District Court of Montana denied the coalition’s motion for summary judgement.

“Respectfully, we think the judge got this one wrong,” said John Sullivan, chair of the Montana chapter of BHA. “The decision failed to address much of the evidence we provided to the court. We believe that any federal decision to abandon historic, century-old public trails is a big deal and should be done with scrutiny, including a public process. In this case, the Forest Service made the decision to abandon these trails behind closed doors and with no process or public notice. Allowing this to stand sets a dangerous precedent. We will continue to fight tooth and nail to protect the public’s legal access in the Crazies and across Montana.”

Sullivan continued, “In addition to the chilling impacts on these trails in the Crazies, landowners looking to remove existing legal public access across the West have been told by the Forest Service that they will do nothing while the public has its access stolen. We will continue to push our case in the public sphere, directly with the Forest Service and in the courts. This is too important not to fight for our members and the public.”

The coalition contends that the public was granted permanent public access to parts of the Crazy Mountains at the time the lands encompassing the trails left public ownership and charges that certain U.S. Forest Service leaders have abdicated their duty to protect and preserve public access for the public in the Crazies. The groups point to four trails that are mapped as public trails and are well known and have been traditionally used by the public but where public access is being illegally and impermissibly obstructed. To date, the Forest Service leaders have failed to act to resolve these illegal and impermissible acts.

Brad Wilson of Friends of the Crazy Mountains noted that the Forest Service simply reversed course from its prior written public position on these trails in its travel plan, its legal defense of the same travel plan and its own internal memos. To this day, no formal announcement or documentation of this reversal has been released.

“The attorney representing the Forest Service acknowledged in court that the public had valid prescriptive easements until the Forest Service stopped removing the landowner’s illegal obstructions and suspended the forest ranger protecting the public’s trust,” said Wilson. “Public access should be subject to the law, not the wavering whims of local federal bureaucrats. Someone needs to hold the Forest Service accountable for failing to do their job.”

Wilson added, “We are confident that the Forest Service failed to follow its own procedures and in doing so, harmed Montana and American citizens. We likewise are confident that the appellate court will agree with our view and reverse this decision.”

Kathryn QannaYahu Kern of Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife and Habitat noted that the Forest Service ignored concerns of coalition members and other members of the public when it failed to protect public access to the trails in the Crazies.

“For several years, we consistently pointed out the Forest Service’s glaring abandonment of its own regulations, with supporting documentation, in a public meeting held in Livingston, in objections filed with the Forest Service, and through other means,” said QannaYahu “We stated that the Forest Service was violating NEPA on the Ibex Project, and we asked for accountability and transparency, but the Forest Service arbitrarily ignored our concerns.”

Located north of Bozeman, Montana, the Crazies encompass prime backcountry lands and waters, providing habitat to elk, whitetails and mule deer, mountain goats and robust predator populations, as well as healthy native trout fisheries. Public access opportunities, however, have caused friction between public lands users and private landowners ever since certain “checkerboard” tracts were transferred from the federal government to railroads in the 1800s and ultimately to private ownership.

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