Crazy Mountains Public Access FAQs

1. Why did our coalition initiate legal action against the Forest Service?

Our coalition filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service for its failure to protect and defend public access on public trails in the Crazy Mountains.

The public has longstanding and permanent public access on four well-known trails where efforts are currently being made to illegally and impermissibly obstruct public access. These trails are mapped as public trails and have traditionally been used by the public. For years the USFS supported and maintained the public’s right to access these trails, however their position has changed and they’re no longer addressing the illegal obstructions, which attempt to block legal public access.

In February 2019, we sent a letter to the USFS requesting a meeting, that steps be taken to address restore our public access and of our intent to sue should they fail to take steps to resolve these important issues. They declined all of our requests.

Our suit is intended to provide visibility into the fact that the USFS has changed its position on these trials, refuses to maintain the public’s right to access these trails, and the absence of a formal response from our efforts to discuss the issue.

2. Why does the coalition care about public access in the Crazy Mountains?

Located an hour’s drive north of Bozeman, Montana, the Crazy Mountains 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 “checkerboard” tracts were transferred from the federal government to railroads in the 1800s and ultimately to private ownership.

The public has longstanding and permanent public access into the Crazy Mountains on the Porcupine Lowline trail #267, Elk Creek trail #195, East Trunk trail #115/136 and Sweet Grass trail #122.These trails are mapped as public trails, they are well known and have been traditionally and continuously used by the public.Yet, people who rely on access opportunities in the Crazy Mountains have been and continue to be confronted with locked gates on these trails, “no forest service access” where historic access has existed, improperly placed “no trespassing” signs, “permission required” for public trails and “keep out” signs at public trailheads and along public trails. In addition, they have encountered downed fences, brush piles in the middle of public trails, spots where National Forest signs and trail markers have been removed, and intimidation from landowners, all on well-known public trails they have used for decades.

These actions have had a negative effect on members of the public and their confidence in using public trails in the Crazy Mountains. Some are concerned for their safety. Others are simply unwilling to deal with the hassle and intimidation from landowners or risk the confrontation and consequences (including a potential trespass citation – valid or not) that comes with climbing an illegal fence or cutting an illegal lock on an illegal gate on our public trails.

3. What is the Forest Service’s obligation regarding upholding public access to public lands, including those in the Crazies?

The four trails noted in our letter are well-known, historic, public trails that have been and continue to be properly identified by the USFS as “public trails.” They are maintained by the USFS and appear on all forest plan and visitor maps of the Crazy Mountains. The four trails also are discussed and displayed in the Service’s most recent 2006 travel plan and related maps. As such, the USFS has a legal obligation pursuant to NFMA, NFMA’s implementing regulations, and its own forest and travel plans and policy to do the following:

(a) protect and defend the public’s use and access on these public trails; and
(b) resolve any disputes concerning access on such trails as soon as is feasible.

At present, the Service is failing to protect existing access rights on contested trails, failing to take action necessary to defend such rights, and failing to resolve such disputes in a timely fashion.

4. How did the Forest Service fail to uphold its mandate?

Our lawsuit targets the USFS’s decisions and related failure to protect, defend and restore public access to public lands in the Crazy Mountains on four specific trails:

  • The Lowline Porcupine trail (No. 267)
  • Elk Creek trail (No. 195)
  • The Sweetgrass trail (No. 122)
  • East Trunk trail (No. 136, formerly No. 115)

The public has a right to access each of these trails. When the Northern Pacific Railroad deeded its sections of the checkerboard land to private parties, on both the west side and east side of the Crazies, an easement for “public use” of these four existing routes across the property was expressly reserved in some of the sections.

Furthermore, each of these four trails was built, maintained and mapped by the USFS well before private land ownership occurred in the region. These four trails have been maintained and continuously used by USFS employees and rangers for administrative purposes (timber sales, grazing, public access) and members of the public to access National Forest lands in the Crazies for hunting, hiking and other recreational pursuits. This maintenance and use are well documented by the USFS.

During the 1987 forest planning process and, more recently, upon issuance of the 2006 travel plan for the Crazy Mountains, all four of these trails were analyzed, mapped and included in the 2006 travel plan as public trails (and roads) open to public access.

5. Why is the coalition initiating legal action now?

The Forest Service is aware that the four trails at question are public and they likely have a recorded easement for such trails (from the railroad deeds) and – at the very least – “retains a prescriptive easement” on each of the trails. The USFS is also aware that these four trails are being “illegally” obstructed or blocked at various access points.

We stand with our brothers and sister at the USFS, many whom work tirelessly to protect our National public lands and public access, including along these trails. However, the USFS seems to have changed is position on these trails. It is not taking meaningful steps to address these attempts at illegal obstructions even though it concedes it is a problem that is getting worse and becoming “increasingly common” across the Custer Gallatin National Forest and the Northern Region.
In February 2019, we sent a letter to the USFS requesting a meeting, that steps be taken to address restore our public access and of our intent to sue should they fail to take steps to resolve these important issues. They declined all of our requests.

Our suit is intended to provide visibility into the fact that the Service has changed its position on these trials, refuses to maintain the public’s right to access these trails, and the absence of a formal response from our efforts to discuss the issue.

6. What is the purpose of the litigation? 

Our challenge is to the USFS’s decision to forgo standard and required practices (NEPA, for example) on the west side of the Crazies in order to construct a trail re-route, essentially rewarding a landowner for illegal attempts to block a public trail. Additional we challenge the USFS’s non-compliance with NFMA, NFMA’s implementing regulations, the forest plan, 2006 travel plan, and the USFS’s own directives and policy, all of which impose a duty on them to protect and defend public access to our public lands in the Crazy Mountains.

Before relinquishing the public’s access rights on the west side and building new trails in important big game habitat, the USFS should consider input from the public, consider the direct, indirect and cumulative effects of its decision, and carefully evaluate all reasonable alternatives to the action. This has not occurred, and we will ask for such a review from the court. We also will ask the court for an order stating the following:

(a) affirming and declaring each of the four trails to be a public, Service trail; and

(b) ordering the Service to take all reasonable and necessary steps to ensure each trail remains open and available for public use.

7. Is the coalition working with the Forest Service to resolve the problem?

Our letter to the Forest Service represents an attempt to work with the Service on this issue. The coalition has attempted to participate in its process regarding the west side trails until that process ended. Our letter invites the USFS to meet and discuss – and hopefully resolve – these issues with regional leadership and personnel. These trails have been improperly blocked for more than two years, and the private, closed-door working group has not resulted in the reopening of any legal trails. Access disputes in the Crazies go back at least 50 years and the status quo is not acceptable.

8. Why isn’t the coalition working with private landowners to resolve the problem?

The coalition respects property rights, both private and public. We believe that the Forest Service has a duty to work with the public and private landowners to ensure that the public has legal access to public land, especially in the cases where easements cross private land.

The Service has made clear in its historic travel plans and documents that these easements exist and the trails are public, and we expect the Service to do its job in keeping these trails open.
Lastly, we were made aware of private closed-door meetings between landowners (some of which are blocking trails), the USFS and other interested parties including the Stockgrowers Association and the Farm Bureau. Representatives from the coalition asked to participate in these meetings.

Our desire was to ensure public land sportsmen and women were represented in negotiations to solve access issues. Our request was simple: Restore our legal public access now and we will work with anyone to relocate trails that encroach on the livelihood of the landowner. Our requests to participate in the meetings were denied for nearly two years.

9. Did the coalition exhaust administrative remedies before undertaking legal action?

Yes. The coalition attempted to participate in every public process regarding the Crazies that has been made available to the organization.

10. How would the coalition prefer to see public access managed in the Crazy Mountains?

The coalition would like nothing more than for the USFS to return to its practice of enforcing the public’s right to legally access public lands. This includes adhering to its own procedures and the law, up to and including filing statements of interest, especially in cases where the USFS has a clear and unambiguous history of identifying trails as public that subsequently have been illegally blocked by private citizens.

We do not want to encroach or threaten any one’s private property rights. We ask only that the public’s right to access legal trails be maintained. We would enter in good faith into any negotiations to move legal trails to avoid private land owner operations and livelihoods, but only while our legal access rights are maintained and preserved.