It is summertime in Montana. Drive down the road, and you will see Montanans pulling their campers to their favorite campsite, hauling their mountain bikes to their favorite trails, or dragging their boats in search of fish. In the fall, they are likely to be adorned with hunter’s orange in pursuit of Montana’s ample wild game. All of these pursuits rely upon public lands and Montanans’ ability to access those private lands.
Unfortunately, as any hunter can tell you, there are two ways to privatize our public lands – you can sell them, or you can block established, legal public access to those lands. In either case, the public is left on the outside of their lands. It seems to me that lands the public cannot access are, for all practical purposes, private lands even if the public does derive some income from those lands.
Recently, the Forest Service removed district ranger Alex Sienkiewicz from his position in the Yellowstone Ranger District pending an internal investigation into his efforts to defend historical Forest Service trails and easements along the Crazy Mountains. Alex is a Montanan who is raising his family in Livingston. He is an important part of our community. In addition to being an assault on the public’s right to legally access its lands, this re-assignment threatens Alex’s family’s well being and instills fear in our public employees who work for all of the public.
Sienkiewicz is being investigated for doing his job. Don’t we expect our Forest Service employees to manage our lands for multiple use? Don’t we expect the Forest Service to defend our legal public access to those lands? I believe we do.
Public lands without public access will not be accessible until the Forest Service, or other public agencies, can negotiate an access with willing surrounding landowners. If negotiations are not successful, or landowners are simply not interested in reaching an access agreement, then the public lands will remain inaccessible. Nobody is trying to force open access to these lands.
When legal access to public land does exist, I believe Montanans fully expect the Forest Service to defend and maintain that access for Montanans.
A look behind the curtain reveals a very troubling story. According to media reports. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Pete Sessions, from Texas both contacted Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue regarding Sienkiewicz’s efforts to protect legal, established accesses to landlocked public lands. According to Mary Erickson, Forest Supervisor, “ the reassignment was made after allegations from an assortment of landowners in the Big Timber area were raised to the level of the Secretary of Agriculture , Sonny Perdue, and Sen. Steve Daines.“
If Daines and Perdue support public ownership of public lands, then they should also support access to those public lands. By pressuring the Forest Service to re-assign a forest service employee who is defending legal public access, Daines and Perdue are betraying their pledge to keep public lands in public hands. I urge Montanans to contact Daines. Let him know that support of public lands includes access to public lands.
I also urge Montanans to contact the Forest Service and ask them to resist political pressure and to re-instate Alex Sienkiewicz as district ranger for the Livingston district. Intimidation of public employees by powerful interests hurts all of us. In this case, it is hurting a great Montanan and his family, too.
Dan Vermillion, of Livingston, chairs the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission. The opinions expressed in this column are his own, not necessarily those of the commission.