Below is part of a press release from Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife & Habitat and others concerning an issue that’s been getting lots of attention in Montana.
HELENA, Mont. – A coalition of conservation-based groups filed a lawsuit on June 10 against the U.S. Forest Service to maintain traditional public access opportunities in the Crazy Mountains of Montana.
The groups’ challenge hinges on the Forest Service’s continued lack of progress and unresponsiveness in maintaining the public’s right to access public lands and waters in the Crazy Mountains. In February, the coalition submitted a letter to the Forest Service summarizing concerns over public access in the Crazies and notifying the agency of its intent to sue should access issues fail to be resolved.
“The upper levels of the Forest Service chose not to respond or address our local public access concerns and repeated complaints of obstruction,” said Brad Wilson of Friends of the Crazy Mountains, a retired Park County assistant road supervisor and deputy sheriff. “Due to the Forest Service’s negligence, we had no choice but to appeal to the court.”
The coalition contends that the public, has longstanding and permanent public access to Montana’s Crazy Mountains. The lawsuit charges that until recently the Forest Service supported and maintained the public’s access to the trails, but certain Forest Service leaders now are abdicating their duty to protect and preserve public access there. The suit specifies four trails, two on the west side and two on the east side of the mountain range, that are mapped as public trails, are well known and have been traditionally used by the public but where certain landowners now are illegally and impermissibly attempting to deny public access (Porcupine Lowline #267, Elk Creek #195, East Trunk #115/136 and Sweet Grass #122).
“Hearing about attempts to obstruct public access in the Crazy Mountains, I began over 1,100 hours of documentation, FOIA requests to the Forest Service, and historical research that verified these trails are public,” said Kathryn QannaYahu of EMWH. “Especially compelling were the county railroad grant deeds of private land, containing the words ‘easement in the public.’ What I found angered me, because the public has easement interests on these four trails, which the Service isn’t protecting on our behalf. On the contrary, they’re allowing certain landowners to attempt to obstruct public access and undermine my and the public’s ability to access historic trials in the Crazy Mountains.”
In a response to Sen. Steve Daines dated Oct. 2, 2015, Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson wrote, “The Forest Service maintains that it holds unperfected prescriptive rights on this trail system, as well as up Sweet Grass Creek to the north based on a history of maintenance with public funds and historic and continued public and administrative use.”
“The Forest Service is bound to do its job and maintain access to these trails,” said Matthew Bishop of the Western Environmental Law Center. “It’s just that simple. This means managing and maintaining the trails, replacing and reinstalling national forest trail markers and signs, and ensuring public access on our public trails in the Crazy Mountains.”
In the words of the Forest Service’s own attorneys regarding one of these trails: “Indeed, it would be irresponsible of the Forest Service to simply abandon these easement rights or fail to reflect their existence in the travel plan simply to avoid the souring of relationships between landowners and recreational groups.”
Photos and maps of the trails are available here.