A coalition of conservation-based groups filed a lawsuit today against the U.S. Forest Service to maintain traditional public access opportunities in the Crazy Mountains of Montana. The coalition includes Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Friends of the Crazy Mountains, Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife and Habitat, and Skyline Sportsmen. They are represented by the Western Environmental Law Center and the Drake Law Firm.
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 obstruction 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.”
“We have been transparent in our goal of restoring public access to the Crazy Mountains,” said Tony Schoonen of the Skyline Sportsmen and a member of the Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame. “Our coalition has committed substantial work to researching the situation in the Crazies, and we plan to continue pursuing this goal in the public eye. While it’s hardly surprising that some politicians and out-of-state bureaucrats are seeking to steal access to our land, we refuse to let it go without a fight.”
“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.”
“These trails are public and were managed that way for many years. We stand with those hardworking Forest Service employees committed to responsibly managing our public lands and waters,” concluded John Sullivan, chair of the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. “Forest Service leadership has stated that these trails are public, yet somewhere along the line their tune changed. We have no intention of standing idly by while this faction engages in the very behavior it has deemed irresponsible. We will fight for the public’s right to access these public lands and waters, which are central to our Montana way of life.”