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Sweet Grass Creek

Sweet Grass Creek on the west side of the Crazy Mountains has contested public access. The range is a patchwork of federal and private lands, unlike most mountain ranges in the state.

For over two years, the Crazy Mountains Working Group has been meeting to try to come up with solutions to improve public access to the mountains that so many Montanans love. I joined the group about a year ago, well after it had been in progress.

Discussions over public lands and public access in Montana are never easy, and the Crazy Mountains are one of the most complicated landscapes in our state. In fact, it’s been a difficult process as we meet every month to untangle all the issues and explore ways to protect legal public access and meet the needs of the public to get to our lands, while still respecting the private property rights of private landowners.

Over the course of many meetings, our group has found that we have a lot in common, too. We all love the magnificent Crazies. Our diverse interests include people who are representatives of organizations like the Crazy Mountain Stock Growers Association, Park County Environmental Council, the Montana Wildlife Federation, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, as well as local landowners and representatives of the federal and state land management agencies.

When I first attended the group, I was met with skepticism because of my affiliation with the Montana Wildlife Federation and my outspoken views for public access to public land and public wildlife. Frankly, I didn’t completely trust all of the other participants either. But we have found that after spending time across the table from people with differences, we can reach some consensus.

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Not everyone who cares about the Crazy Mountains supports the Crazy Mountains Working Group. Some stakeholders have not participated in the process, and that’s fine. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions about how to tackle tough issues, and we need to respect that. Some groups also recently sued the U.S. Forest Service over the agency’s management of some specific trails in the Crazies. Everyone has the right to go to court, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also try to have hard conversations with all sides and see if we can find solutions outside courts.

By working together, we can find new ways to look at issues over the long term. For example, some members of the Working Group also recently took flights over the Crazies with members of the Crow Nation. We learned about how sacred the Crazies are to the tribe, and that they did not want to see any more motorized trails. We agreed to honor those wishes.

Even as the Crazy Mountain Working Group works together, we have been seeing some progress on public access. The Forest Service was about to break ground on a trail reroute that would have opened up access to two of the main trails on the west side of the range. The reroute wasn’t perfect, but it provided certainty to the public and would have been a good template for the trails on the east side of the range. Unfortunately, that progress has been postponed.

The Crazy Mountains Working Group is trying to find some resolution to the longstanding disputes over access to a landscape we all love. We will continue to meet and work toward those solutions and ensure that all interests get something in return for giving something.

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John Salazar, of Livingston, is a public land hunter, board member of the Montana Wildlife Federation, and volunteer on the Crazy Mountains Working Group.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.