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Big Timber Canyon

Big Timber Canyon provides access to the checkerboard land ownership of the Crazy Mountains on the east side.

Property rights and the right to access our incredible public lands are two core values that Montanans share. But sometimes reconciling these principles requires compromise.

Conflict over access in the Crazy Mountains has been a chronic problem. The land ownership pattern is a checkerboard of public and private land and there are few public roads to the national forest boundary. But in recent years, tensions between landowners, public land access advocates, and the Forest Service have run particularly high.

The Crazy Mountain Working Group consists of affected landowners, residents, Forest Service representatives, and a diverse array of organizations such as Park County Environmental Council, Crazy Mountain Stock Growers Association, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The group has been meeting over the last 10 months to explore ways to resolve these issues. It’s gratifying that Montanans are coming together in the Crazy Mountains to protect both the rights of private property owners and the rights of the public who want access to public land.

Out of these meetings comes a sign of progress: A potential collaborative solution to reroute one long-contested trail, which would avoid litigation, while improving access to several sections of public land.

The Forest Service is proposing to reroute a portion of the Porcupine Lowline Trail (No. 267) on the west side of the Crazies. The old trail crosses about six miles of private property, passing through rolling meadows and forest. It connects the Porcupine and Ibex Forest Service cabins and provides a northern access to public lands surrounding Campfire Lake via Trail No. 195, along Elk Creek.

The Porcupine Lowline Trail has been on Forest Service maps since the early 1900s, but the Forest Service does not have a recorded easement across portions of private land. The old trail has not been maintained and is difficult to find in some areas, which has led to confusion by the public and people drifting off the route. In some areas this has caused off-road vehicle damage on private property. Disagreeing with legality of the trail, several years ago the property owner locked the gate where the trail enters his family’s land, blocking public access.

While there may be evidence to establish an unperfected prescriptive easement through private land, these cases can only be be determined by a court. Suing to prove the easement could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take several years to settle, with no guarantee of a satisfactory outcome for either side.

As a result of the collaborative efforts of the Crazy Mountain Working Group, the landowner has proposed granting permanent easements through portions of his family’s property that would enable the Forest Service to construct a new trail primarily on public lands. Similar to the old trail, it would provide access to Campfire Lake via Elk Creek, and connect the Porcupine and Ibex cabins. In exchange — and upon completion of the new trail — the Forest Service would relinquish any interests or claims on the current route.

On March 1, the Forest Service launched a scoping process to assess this alternative route called the Porcupine Ibex Trail. As proposed, the Porcupine Ibex would be a 12-mile trail upslope and parallel to the Porcupine Lowline. The construction of 7.8 miles of new trail and 4.3 miles of reconstruction on existing trails is estimated to cost between $140,000 to $180,000. Possible funding sources include public-private partnerships. With public support and funding secured, the trail could be built in 2019. Compared to litigation, rerouting the trail presents an economical and timely solution.

The Crazy Mountain Working Group, as well as a diverse array of other stakeholders such as Montana Wildlife Federation, Montana Stock Growers Association, Western Landowners Alliance, Livingston Bike Club, Montana Trout Unlimited, Montana Mountain Mamas and Rob Gregoire, all support the Forest Service thoroughly exploring this option. The proposed reroute may very well strike a balance between the rights of property owners to control access to their land, and the right of the public to have access to national forest land that belongs to everyone.

Erica Lighthiser and Lorents Grosfield wrote this in collaboration with the Crazy Mountain Working Group and other stakeholders mentioned in the guest opinion.