Don Thomas, outdoor writer

DON THOMAS

When Alex Sienkiewicz and his wife Holly arrived in Livingston in 2011, they felt enthusiastic about raising their children in a small Montana town. After years of higher education, Sienkiewicz also felt excited about assuming his duties as district ranger in the Forest Service and getting out into the field where he’d always longed to be.

Then on June 16, Regional Forest Service Supervisor Mary Erickson informed him that he was being reassigned, and that he faced an internal misconduct investigation. The reason? He’d been doing his job.

Conflicts over public access to Gallatin National Forest land in the Crazy Mountains had been simmering for years. The Forest Service had built, maintained, and utilized trails there for decades, and documents dating back to 1930 and beyond established that they were public.

Erickson herself expressed that position in a 2015 letter to Sen. Steve Daines: “The Forest Service maintains that it owns unperfected prescriptive rights on this trail system.” Alerted by complaints about blocked trails and no-trespassing signs from outdoor recreationists, Sienkiewicz began to take this policy seriously.

A handful of ranchers whose land some of these trails crossed objected, as they had been doing for years. With their ire focused on Sienkiewicz, they did what influential Americans have always done and took their complaints to Washington. Highly critical letters went out to Sen. Daines and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue just prior to Sienkiewicz’s reassignment.

There was no question about the reason for that reassignment, about which Supervisor Erickson commented: “…it relates to ongoing issues around access in the Crazy Mountains and allegations from landowners about how Alex has navigated some of these disputes.”

Sienkiewicz understands the value of public lands to the people of Montana and the importance of access to those lands. Acting in accordance with established Forest Service policy, he defended those rights only to be blind-sided by Washington politicians, one of whom we Montanans elected ourselves. Even more disturbingly, he was undercut by the agency that is supposed to be safeguarding those rights — all because he was doing what agency policy said he was supposed to do.

Consider the implications of the message sent by Daines and Perdue: Federal employees who upset influential constituents are at risk even when operating within the parameters established by their own agencies. Montanans of all political affiliations should find this chilling.

It’s time to reinstate Sienkiewicz to the position he came to Montana to perform, on behalf of all of us who depend on public lands as a source of recreation, opportunity, and renewal. And it’s time for the Forest Service to work for the American people, encourage public access to public land, and to defend its own employees who are doing the same.

Don Thomas, of Lewistown, is a long-time outdoors writer.

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