Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and a coalition of concerned conservation-based groups have submitted a letter to the U.S. Forest Service summarizing the groups’ concerns over public access in the Crazy Mountains in Montana and notifying the agency of their intent to sue should access issues fail to be resolved.
The groups contend that the public was granted permanent public access to parts of south-central Montana’s Crazy Mountains at the time the lands encompassing the trails left public ownership. Their letter charges that certain U.S. Forest Service leaders are abdicating their duty to protect and preserve public access for the public in the Crazy Mountains. The letter specifies five trails, two on the west side and three on the east side of the mountain range, that are mapped as public trails and are well known and have been traditionally used by the public but where public access is currently being illegally and impermissibly obstructed. To date, the Forest Service leaders have failed to act to resolve these illegal and impermissible acts.
Located an hour’s drive 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.
The groups’ expectation is that illegally blocked trails throughout the Crazy Mountains no longer will be tolerated by the Forest Service. Instead, signs and gates will be removed or opened and the Forest Service trail markers restored. The groups also requests than any decision to relinquish the public’s access rights in the Crazy Mountains or related decision to build new trails be subject to public review and comment and careful analysis.
“The Crazy Mountains must remain accessible to all Americans,” said Jim Posewitz, a BHA life member. “They are more than a spectacular scenic backdrop for some individual’s trophy ranch. We have a chance now to take a shot at preserving our unique democracy of the wild. Solving public access issues in the Crazy Mountains has waited over half century, and the time has come.”
“Sportsmen and women rely on access to public lands and waters for much of our time afield, with insufficient access being cited as the No. 1 reason why we forgo hunting and fishing,” said Tony Schoonen Sr. from Skyline Sportsmen’s Association. “This coalition refuses to turn a blind eye while top-down orders from Washington, D.C., result in the permanent elimination of public access in the Crazy Mountains.”
“Our sincere preference is never to engage in litigation; however, we have been forced to intervene in the Crazies because Forest Service leadership has failed to execute its mandate to keep these trails open to the public,” said Greg Munther, BHA Montana chapter conservation director and USFS district ranger (ret.). “Our inaction would allow the continued mismanagement of public access and harm hunters, anglers and others who cherish these backcountry Western lands and waters in Montana.”
Longstanding tensions over public access in the Crazies were inflamed in November 2016 when a local hunter was charged with trespassing when he utilized a trail crossing private lands, even after confirming with local Forest Service personnel that the trail was public. When District Ranger Alex Sienkiewicz legally and rightfully attempted to uphold the public’s right to access the trails, he was suspended then reassigned. (Following an independent investigation, he was cleared of any impropriety and returned to his role.)
“Those who seek to lock us out of our public lands and waters operate in the political backrooms and dark corners where their money can effectively peddle influence from those willing to sell,” said Ryan Busse, chairman of BHA’s North American board. “The enemy of fraud is the light of day, and we are confident that, as we produce the evidence obtained over the last two and a half years, these backrooms and dark corners will be shown the light of day.”
“We know this will be a long fight, that the road ahead will be rough and the stakes high, but the prize should we succeed is nothing less than our way of life,” said John Sullivan, BHA Montana chapter chairman. “As long as the leadership in Washington, D.C., can ignore its duties to citizens, our public lands and waters, the fish and wildlife that inhabit them and the individuals who rely on access to them will suffer. Thankfully the law, public opinion and our unwavering commitment to this issue is on our side. We at BHA are dedicated to resolving this conflict on behalf of American public land owners.”