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Alex Sienkiewicz

Alex Sienkiewicz, shown here in 2014, will be reinstated as district ranger for the Yellowstone Ranger District on Oct. 23.

The Public Land/Water Access Association is very concerned by the recent removal of Yellowstone District Ranger, Alex Sienkiewicz, from his position and more importantly the implications of how it was handled and what the action portends.

Based of the available public information, the Forest Service’s action raises several significant and disturbing questions about the Trump Administration’s support of public access to the public’s lands: Will it allow its field managers to do their jobs to protect the public interest? Or will political meddling for the benefit of wealthy and powerful landowners prevail?

Sienkiewicz’s removal, apparently after Sen. Steve Daines became involved, also raises questions about Daines' support of public access and whether he precipitated the action or is complicit in it. The replacement of Sienkiewicz by the public affairs officer speaks volumes, both substantively and symbolically, about the Forest Service’s focus on information and spin control over resource management in this resource- and recreation-rich district.

The basic issue is a much-too-common access conflict where a landowner maintains no public access exists across the individual’s private lands to the public lands beyond in the face of existing evidence of historic, legal public access. The case in this instance involves access to Forest Service managed lands in the Crazy Mountains.

The Justice Department reportedly blocked Forest Service employees from testifying to the public access evidence in a recent trespass case raising further doubts about this administration’s support of public access. The landowner’s attorney is quoted as saying, “If the Forest Service or the public thinks there is a prescriptive easement across the land, then it is up to them to prove it.” The Forest Service, the Trump Administration and Daines should not just allow, but support and encourage the Forest Service employees in pursuing the case and protecting the public interest.

These public access issues are increasingly common across Montana. They block the public from vast areas of public lands that belong to all of us. The issue cuts across multiple federal departments and agencies including Agriculture, Interior lead by Montana’s own Ryan Zinke, and Justice since Justice is ultimately tasked with defending the federal (public interest). PLWA is concerned that much too often the reassuring statements of support for public access by our elected officials and their political appointees are at odds with their actions. Actions like the recent removal of the Yellowstone District Ranger show the public loses and our public employees are professionally bludgeoned.

Bernard Lea, of Billings, is president of the Public Land/Water Access Association.