A coalition of outdoor groups and individuals is threatening to sue the Custer Gallatin National Forest for “failure to protect and defend public access rights in the Crazy Mountains.”
In a letter delivered on Wednesday to the agency, drafted by the Western Environmental Law Center in Helena, the coalition asks for a chance to discuss its concerns with forest officials before proceeding with the lawsuit.
"We would welcome the opportunity to meet and discuss these issues further with you and (Forest) Service personnel — preferably within the next thirty (30) days and before the Service relinquishes any public access rights on public trails or begins any on-the-ground work on a proposed re-route in the Crazy Mountains,” according to the 15 page notice of intent to sue.
“This is the first step to see how they respond,” said Matthew Bishop, of the Western Environmental Law Center.
Forest Service spokeswoman Marna Daley said she could not comment on the letter except to say the agency was disappointed to see litigation threatened.
"We feel more progress has been made to secure access in the last few years than in the past decade," she said.
Former Big Timber state legislator Lorents Grosfield, a member of the Crazy Mountain Working Group that has been discussing the access issues with landowners and federal and state officials, said he's disheartened by the threat to sue.
"If a lawsuit went forward it would be hard for us to continue," he said.
A lawsuit could bring to a boil quarrels that have become heated in the past two years: a Bozeman hunter was charged with trespass and found guilty for using one of the contested trails; the Livingston-based district forest ranger was temporarily reassigned, investigated and finally reinstated following criticism of his advocacy for public access on the Custer Gallatin National Forest; Sen. Steve Daines stepped into the fray admonishing the ranger and warning the agency that the ranger’s tactics seemed to be promoting “controversy and aggressive action.”
The coalition identifies five specific trails that access the Crazy Mountains that it believes are legal routes for the public but are now blocked by private landowners. The trails are: Lowline Porcupine Trail (No. 267); Elk Creek Trail (No. 195); Sweetgrass Trail (No. 122); East Trunk Trail (No. 136, formerly No. 115); and Swamp Lake Trail (No. 43).
“Many of the Coalition’s members, supporters, and staff now feel they are effectively shut out of portions of the Crazy Mountains due to the illegal and obstructive actions of some landowners who insist the public has no right to use and access historic trails in the Crazy Mountains,” the letter stated. “The Coalition is thus compelled to submit this notice letter and, if necessary, pursue legal action.”
The groups also argue that based on their research of documents, “there is no question that the public has had (for nearly a century) and continues to have a right of public access to each of these five (and likely more) illegally blocked trails.”
Members of the coalition include the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Skyline Sportsmen Association, and John Gibson, a long-time member and official in the Public Land/Water Access Association.
“It’s one battle after another,” said Tony Schoonen, of the Skyline Sportsmen Association, which has fought closure of public access routes in the Anaconda and Butte areas. “Maybe I’m in trouble for saying so, but I really don’t care.”
Former federal employee and Montana native John Daggett signed the notice of intent. He said in an email, "This case is all about the Forest Service doing its job to keep Forest Service trails in the Crazies open to the public. ... Allowing individuals to close trails and pressuring the agency to make some kind of a hostage deal is not true collaboration, as some would call it."
Behind the scenes
Custer Gallatin National Forest officials have been working with a group of ranchers who own land at the base of the Crazy Mountains in an attempt to reach some type of agreement. Last March the agency announced a proposal to reroute the Lowline Porcupine Trail to avoid private land. About a decade ago, a north side landowner padlocked a gate across the road leading to the trailhead.
Much of the trail’s northern end meanders through private land owned by the M Hanging Lazy 3 Ranch, operated by Ned and Cindy Zimmerman.
"We've been interested for a very long time in trying to get something settled," Ned Zimmerman told The Billings Gazette at the time, adding that an agreement could generate goodwill and lead to similar deals with other landowners.
Grosfield, a member of the negotiating group, said the trail is a good compromise, although noting that it won't please everyone.
Those involved in the landowner negotiations feared that a lawsuit like the one being threatened will have a chilling effect on reaching an agreement. The Forest Service's Daley said the agency is close to finalizing a proposal for the re-route and is aiming for the end of summer to begin construction.
"The notice of intent to sue might alter that time frame, but we're hopeful," she said.
The coalition said the existing situation — which they claim includes threats by landowners against those trying to use the trails — has intimidated, hassled and tainted the experiences of members of the public trying to reach forest lands.
“Over the last few years, the situation has only intensified and escalated,” the letter stated.
Opponents to the re-route are therefore urging the Forest Service to do just what Sen. Daines had opposed — be aggressive and assertive in establishing and maintaining public access.
“ … The (Forest) Service never insisted that the landowner first end its illegal and harmful practice of blocking public access on these public trails,” the letter stated. “This is true despite repeated requests from the public to do so. Adding insult to injury, the Service has also announced that this project will move forward in the absence of any new environmental review or analysis or consideration of alternatives, including a ‘no action’ alternative that questions whether such a re-route is even necessary given the Service’s existing, prescriptive easement to the trail.”
Erica Lighthiser, a Livingston member of the Crazy Mountain Working Group, said she believes in the process they have undertaken, even though it has taken time.
"I don't know if we have all of the answers, but what's been amazing about the process is that people with different views have learned from each other," she said.
The threat of a lawsuit underlines the fact that people are frustrated by the access situation, Lighthiser added.
"I'm hopeful this too can be resolved," she said, because going to court will cost money and won't resolve the issue any time soon.