Friends of the Crazy Mountains was formed around a campfire chat involving a few friends. It seems when mankind is in the great outdoors, many issues get resolved. In a way, our spirits are set free because here nobody can judge us —that is why preserving public access to our public land is so important. It give us freedom and a place to escape from everyday struggles. It is a public good.
The Crazy Mountains became a hot topic after Yellowstone District Ranger Alex Sienkiewicz was reassigned after he ran into opposition while trying to work on and maintain historical prescriptive easement trails, leaving public access to these historical public trails vulnerable. Since forming our group, we have shed light on west side public access issues. We are under the impression, from the U.S. Forest Service, there are negotiations going on with some landowners in reference to prescriptive easements on the Lowline Trail. What has gotten us to this point? Growing up in this area, we have always had these prescriptive easement trails. This is no longer the case. We now see "No Access" signs going up on these historical public trails as well as locked gates, creating controversy. This situation that has evolved points to two things: money and greed.
Montana is on the map now. It has some of the best recreational opportunities in the United States. Unfortunately, these opportunities are becoming increasingly unavailable to the public. We realize this comment will create an argument. Some of us who have lived here our whole life have seen and felt the impact to hunting, fishing, or just accessing our public lands to recreate. For example, our big game animals are now sought by trophy hunters, who will pay top dollar for access to harvest them. However, to the average Montanan, they are a means of necessity for food.
Much of the land in our area has been leased out, making our public lands and public access much more critical. We are running out of public places to access and recreate. The Crazy Mountains are unique. Much of the land is in a checkerboard pattern of private and public. When we start losing public access points in these areas, this increases land locking of public land, making it extremely difficult to access.
These issues arising on the trails seems to confuse the public. We are told by the U.S. Forest Service these are public trails, but when we access them, we run into "No Trespassing" signs or locked gates. This creates doubt. These are historical public trails. Many of our children and ancestors have accessed these public trails, which have been in place for a hundred years.
The U.S. Forest Service has put the public in a bad spot by using citizens as a buffer between itself and the property owners. It is apparent negotiations have not worked or seem one-sided. There should be no negotiations pertaining to historical prescriptive easement trails.
The U.S. Forest Service needs to protect the public's right to access public land, even if it means deferring to the court. We wonder will our grandchildren and great-grandchildren get to enjoy the public access many of us have had or will it continue to disappear?
We need to take action. Please contact your federal, state, and local representatives to voice your concerns.
-- Brad Wilson, of Wilsall, is the founder of Friends of the Crazy Mountains, which he says started with local residents and now has about 40 members.