Access to the Crazy Mountains is back in the news, this time stimulated by a digital report titled “Losing Ground: Montana’s Endangered Access.” If you are expecting a report with detailed maps and statistics, you will be disappointed. In fact you might call it a “fake report.”
It lists the “top five endangered places,” with the Crazy Mountains getting the No. 1 one ranking because “extremely limited access prohibits many families from hiking, viewing wildlife, and biking this special place.” Then it shows a touching, but also fake, 34-second video of a family walking through the woods only to be denied access by orange paint and a “No Trespassing” sign. There is no trail or road, only a gate to private property.
The only statistic comes from a 2013 report prepared by the Center for Western Priorities claiming 2 million acres in Montana are inaccessible to the public. Even this statistic is misleading because it includes national parks, state lands, and even military bases where access is limited by federal agencies. Indeed, a 2015-16 report from the Environmental Quality Council prepared for the Montana Legislature finds that only 1 percent of Forest Service land— 148,000 acres — in Montana is inaccessible.
In the other “endangered” areas — Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument, Flint Creek Mountains, Bear Paw Mountains, and McGregor Lake — the issue is private road closures.
But if you want to point at road closures cutting off access to public lands, there is no bigger threat than the U.S. Forest Service that has closed nearly 22,000 miles of roads since the mid 1990s.
A simple way to quantify trail access is the number of official trailheads per square mile.
For the “most endangered” Crazies, the Gallatin Custer National Forest Service map shows 13 official trailheads amounting to one trailhead for every 46 square miles (30,000) acres. In contrast, the Bridger Range has 17 designated trailheads amounting to one for every 69 square miles. By this measure, the Bridgers should be listed as more “endangered” than the Crazies.
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“Losing Ground” follows a Bloomberg Business Week article quoting retired deputy sheriff Brad Wilson who says private landowners will “shut down pretty much the whole interior of the Crazy Mountains.” As evidence in support of this claim, “Losing Ground” says Trail 122 (Sweet Grass Creek) is “now inaccessible.” In fact, that trail is accessed via a private road, privately maintained, where anyone desiring access can park on and hike across two miles of private land to access public land. You must sign in on a private log saying where you are going and how long you plan to stay, but it is accessible. The report also claims that “Lowline and Elk Creek Trails” are inaccessible. The Lowline Trail traverses seven sections of land, of which only two are Forest Service sandwiched between private, and it has never had documented historic access. The Elk Creek trail is accessible with permission from the landowner.
Simply giving a number to a trail and claiming historic use does not guarantee legal access. A map on the wall of the Yellowstone District Forest Service Office in Livingston marks six trails in the Crazies with notes saying, “disputed.” This means that access rights are in question.
The groups that complain about a lack of public access also advocate more wilderness, but more access in the small mountain chains will only reduce the wilderness experience. All of the disputed Crazy Mountain trails are easily accessible from nearby trailheads begging the question — how much access is enough?
The “Losing Ground” report also claims that the “lack of public access creates severe problems managing the elk herd” in the Crazies, citing an elk population of 4,800 in Hunting District 580 on the east side. Like almost every hunting district, this population exceeds FWP management objectives — 975 in Hunting District 580. Opening access to the steep public lands in the Crazies will do nothing to reduce elk populations. More cow hunting on private land is necessary and that will only come with cooperation between landowners and FWP, not with litigious recommendations in the report.
The Forest Service is working with groups such as the Crazy Mountain Stockgrowers and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and with private landowners to resolve the disputed trails. One of those landowners says it’s the “most cooperation I’ve seen in 15 years.”
Rather than trying to force access down the throats of private landowners, Montana Wildlife Federation and its comrades might try to find win-win solutions. In short, how about respecting private property and using good old fashion Montana neighborliness.