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In 2002, Texas lobbyist Stan Schlueter finished building an 8,000-square-foot second home on property he purchased overlooking Big Sky Resort and Lone Mountain.

The home was built on a small portion of the 497 acres he purchased the year before on the north side of Highway 64, the main route up from the Gallatin Canyon to Big Sky Resort.

Trouble is, the Gallatin National Forest contended the home infringed on a 60-foot easement the agency possessed on a road across Schlueter’s land that accessed the nearby forest.

So began a 10-year negotiation process with proposals and counter proposals, political pressure and heated exchanges that may now be close to a resolution.

“It’s been a balancing act between individual interests and, for the Forest Service, what’s in the public’s best interest,” said Marna Daley, Gallatin National Forest public affairs officer.

The proposal

The agreement would create a trail system similar to Lone Mountain Ranch’s current system of Nordic trails that loop across the mountainside between Big Sky’s meadow and mountain villages — only the trail would be open to the public year-round. About a mile to a mile-and-a-half of new trail would have to be built to complete the proposed loop route. All together, the trail would amount to about seven miles.

To create the trail system, the Forest Service would close off public motorized access to much of its loop road — 166B — a portion of which is the contested section that goes past Schlueter’s home. A new route would bypass the road that used to go to Schlueter’s, but the route would be for Forest Service administrative use only.

The public would still have access to two trails — Ridge Trail No. 403 that connects to the Beehive Basin and Bear Basin Trail No. 16.

“This is a fundamental change from a road system to a trail system,” said Lisa Stoeffler, ranger for the Bozeman District.

“Essentially, it’s an idea where we’re asking the public if there’s a trail system to get to national forest public lands, is that acceptable to them?”

The Forest Service will hold an open house to answer questions about the proposal on March 14 at First Security Bank in Big Sky from 4:30 to 6 p.m.

Some support

The proposal has already gained support from three conservation groups, including the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, which helped negotiate the agreement.

“This adds a diversity of recreational opportunities in the Big Sky area on private lands and provides access to public lands,” said Peter Brown of the land trust. “It certainly aligns with what we do: protecting land with conservation easements as well as providing public trail access.”

Jessie Wiese, executive director of the Big Sky Commercial Corporation, said her nonprofit group’s board has not yet taken a stance on the proposal.

Brian Kuehl, of the Vela Environmental consulting firm, which has recently represented Schlueter in the talks, said the agreement “converts a low-value road into a high-value trail.”

Kuehl said nine landowners would be granting public easements in perpetuity for the trail and they would also create an endowment to pay for trail construction and maintenance.

Encroachments

Google Earth shots of Schlueter’s home show it sitting close to where Old Toby Road (aka Forest Road 166B) used to switchback on a ridge. Kuehl said Schlueter built outside of the road easement and with the understanding that he would be able to negotiate an agreement with the Forest Service to satisfy its requirements.

It's the Forest Service's opinion that no such authorization was granted, and could not have been granted, according to Bob Dennee, lands specialist for the Gallatin National Forest.

Although encroachment on an easement is illegal, Stoeffler said it happens all the time on national forest lands and the agency always tries to negotiate a settlement. Schlueter was never cited for the violation, but Stoeffler said that’s not unusual, either.

Although the Forest Service originally tried to negotiate with Schlueter, Stoeffler said two earlier proposals were opposed by other landowners who feared the deals would shift more traffic to their areas.

“Anything you do has a domino effect on other landowners,” she said.

The most recent proposal is a feasible option that brings in all of the landowners, Stoeffler added.

Seeking help

As the process has dragged on, Schlueter hasn’t hesitated to seek help pressuring the Forest Service via political channels. He has connections since he served in the Texas Legislature between 1977 and 1989 before becoming a lobbyist. He now owns The Schleuter Group, a lobbying firm in Austin, Texas.

That’s not unusual, though, Daley said, especially given the longevity of the negotiations. She noted any person has the right to use their elected officials to run interference for them on government issues.

Although a former Texas politician, Schlueter has ties to Montana politics, as well. He hosted a brunch in honor of Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., at his Big Sky home this summer and has contributed to the Montana Democratic Central Committee, as well as to former Rep. Denny Rehberg’s re-election campaign in 2009. His representative, Kuehl, is a former chief of staff for Baucus.

End in sight?

It’s possible the tortuous relationship between Schlueter and the Gallatin National Forest could be nearly over. Brown, of the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, said if all goes well the proposed trail could be open to the public by the end of the year.

“One point that I think is worth emphasizing is that this has always been an effort to improve access to public lands,” Kuehl wrote in an email to The Gazette. “This is not a case where any of the landowners involved have attempted to block access to public lands like happens so often in Montana and other western states. In this case, the landowners are proposing to build and maintain a trail system that will benefit the public and that will secure access to public lands.”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.