The Crazy Mountains soar out of the prairie, suggesting peace and tranquility in this oasis of forest and streams. The idyllic landscape belies longstanding friction over public access to National Forest interspersed with private land.
The latest round centers on the removal of District Ranger Alex Sienkiewicz from field work in the Crazies to an office job pending an internal investigation. That action came in response to pressure from U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. The senator and secretary reacted to complaints about Sienkiewicz from ranchers and outfitters.
Montana hunters and public access advocates have stepped up to defend Sienkiewicz, saying he was following long-established Forest Service policy.
The simmering controversy heated up last fall when Bozeman hunter Rob Gregoire was cited by a Sweet Grass County deputy sheriff for trespassing on a trail that he and Sienkiewicz believe to be open to the public by “prescriptive easement,” because it has historically been used by the public to access otherwise inaccessible public land.
Landowners Lee and Barbara Langhus disagree and made the trespass complaint. There is no written easement allowing public access across their land, although the trail has long been marked on Forest Service maps and cited in the Gallatin Forest Travel Plan.
The Crazy Mountains contain more than 8,000 acres of National Forest that the public has no way of accessing. That forest land is surrounded by private holdings. The Crazies also contain a hunting district, much of which is inaccessible to the public, with 2,000 elk — twice the district’s maximum target as determined by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.
That’s the hunting district that Gregoire was trying to reach. The oversupply of elk feast on some neighbors’ hay supplies, while others profit from exclusive, limited hunts.
Land ownership in the Crazies is a checkerboard pattern of public and private sections that dates to the 1860s when the U.S. government gave Northern Pacific Railroad 17 million acres of the Montana Territory up to 80 miles from the rail line. More frequent confrontations are cropping up on land that has recently changed ownership with new owners who want their private property off-limits to the public. In other cases, long-time owners may have a beef with Forest Service personnel or bad experiences with the public.
Solutions won’t be easy, but resolution efforts need to start now. There’s only one remaining public access to the entire 35-mile-long eastern flank of the Crazies.
From facts reported previously in The Gazette, it appears that Sienkiewicz is being penalized for doing his job. Government employees deserve to know that their supervisors — even the secretary of the department — will stand up for them when they are serving the public.
However, the Forest Service and local landowners have some fence mending to do. Custer Gallatin Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson should have authority to devise better ways to build trust between local landowners and Forest Service personnel in the field. The local forest working group should actively engage citizens with differing perspectives.
In the long run, landowners, hunters, hikers and other public land users need clarification on access issues. Possible remedies include:
- Montana legislative action to provide public access while protecting private property rights.
- Litigation that would result in a Montana Supreme Court ruling.
- Land swaps to consolidate key public and private holdings.
It’s not realistic to believe that everyone interested in the Crazies will just sit down and start getting along. But we urge the Forest Service to start a conversation with landowners and the general public.
Daines and Perdue must stop micromanaging staff in the Gallatin Forest. Daines should listen to all his constituents, relay their concerns and then let land management professionals do their jobs.
Perdue should see that decision making about forest land is led by department professionals in Montana — not from his Washington, D.C., office.