Vanishing Trails, Part 1: The Battle For One of the West's Most Beloved Mountain Ranges

“Vanishing Trails” is a series of articles about prescriptive easements and public access in Montana.

On October 21, 2021, during a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing, New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich brought the microphone to his mouth, flipped his pencil around in his fingers, and accused U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Christopher French of yanking his chain.

“Mr. French, just the other day I raised the issue of the prescriptive public easements in the Crazy Mountains, and you said to me, and I quote, ‘We haven’t changed our position.’”

According to Montana law, a prescriptive easement is a right to use a piece of someone else’s private property that is acquired by using it openly and continuously for five years. This consistent use, which must meet a list of legal criteria, creates a public road or trail that cuts across private land but isn’t formally deeded. Prescriptive easements exist simply because public users have walked, ran, hiked, rode, or driven across them for a half decade or longer.

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