Forest Service policy shift bodes ill for Crazy Mountains and elsewhere

April 3, 2022 5:48 am

Mountains near Emigrant, Montana (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan)

When Montana’s first-in-the-nation stream access law was making its way through the legislature the first time, it did not include the provision that currently allows the citizens the right to use the bed and banks to the high-water mark, instead, the law would have prohibited the public’s use of both.

Imagine no-wade fishing in Montana, or the inability to anchor your boat. This proposal included support of people claiming to be “pro-access.” Their theory at the time was: “It’s best to get what we can,” rather than press on and fight for what is right and ultimately best for the citizens of Montana.

Similarly, those celebrating Judge Cavan’s preliminary ruling in the Crazies, are making it progressively harder for the public to access legal public land by becoming apologists for wealthy landowners and the politicians they have purchased and for the U.S. Forest Service which is doing their bidding.

For those who lament the transition of Montana from the Last Best Place to a playground for the rich, one need to look no further than the Crazy Mountains. To celebrate Judge Timothy Cavan’s ruling is to ignore the following facts, none of which are in dispute, and all of which were on display in court. The four trails in question were built and maintained with public dollars and appeared on USFS maps. These trails were enjoyed by the public for nearly 100 years. The trails were designated by the USFS as public without restriction in their travel plans which were successfully defended in court against these same landowners. The USFS maintained this position until 2017, when they simply stopped defending the trails and suspended the ranger who was removing the illegal obstructions (the USFS’ words, not mine) all on behalf of Montana’s citizens.

The attorney for the USFS acknowledged in open court that because of this, the USFS had now (as of January 2022) changed their opinion and that these trails are no longer public. For pro-access people to claim that this is not a shift in USFS policy is to ignore all of the above, none of which is in dispute. The judge’s ruling gives the USFS the “choice” to defend these trails (and future trails), while simultaneously beginning to remove the opposing citizen’s voice from the process. Just imagine how the future’s changing political administrations will use this to the advantage of the wealthy.  Regardless of the legality, this is bad policy, and those defending it are directly aiding in the loss of public access. Supporting the taking of trails that were once public, and removing them from the public trust is the very definition of anti-public access.

Indeed, we have already received indication that the USFS intends to abandon the Sweetgrass trail in the Crazies as well as three additional trails in the Helena National Forest. If you agree this is good policy, you should stand with those in support of the current proposal in the Crazy Mountains.

We should all be concerned of the recent change in USFS policy to stop defending public access. This shift is bad policy for everyday Montanans and the public throughout the West, and good policy for the wealthy landowner with the means to influence policy with political donations. Once these accesses are lost, they are lost forever. Imagine if Tony Schoonen had accepted the first stream access proposal, or imagine if Jim Posewitz, had accepted the dam at the Allenspur notch diverting two-thirds of the Yellowstone River and the Paradise Valley underwater. Both Tony and Jim supported the litigation to defend access in the Crazies. A good rule of thumb is if you find yourself on the other side of a public access issue from Tony Schoonen and Jim Posewitz, your position might not be pro public access. No amount of fancy words from the Yellowstone Club consultants funneled through locals will change that.

Brad Wilson, of Wilsall, is a lifelong Montanan and Founder of Friends of the Crazy Mountains. His family has over 100 years of historic use on the public trail system in the Crazy Mountains. 

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