Conflict over public access in the Crazy Mountains has been a chronic problem. Due to the checkerboard land ownership, many of the trails cross several miles of private land. In recent years, tensions between landowners, public land access advocates, and the Forest Service are running particularly high. Five trails in the Crazy Mountains, Trails 195, 267, 122, 136, and 43 are currently blocked and contested by local landowners — making access to the range very challenging.
For more than a year now, PCEC has been engaged in this issue, meeting with a variety of stakeholders, with an eye towards identifying possible solutions. Being a community conservation organization, our goals have been simple: create space for community members to discuss these complicated issues, be a voice for conservation.
We are also participating in the Crazy Mountain Working Group, which consists of affected landowners, residents, Forest Service representatives, and a diverse array of organizations including the Crazy Mountain Stock Growers Association, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The group has been meeting over the last 10 months to explore ways to resolve these issues.
After many long (and sometimes difficult) discussions with the Crazy Mountain Working Group, comes a sign of progress: A potential collaborative solution to address the longstanding dispute over trails 267 and 195, which would avoid litigation, while improving access to several sections of public land.
The Forest Service is proposing to reroute a portion of the Porcupine Lowline Trail (No. 267) on the west side of the Crazies. On Forest Service Maps, the old trail crosses about six miles of private property, passing through rolling meadows and forest. It connects the Porcupine and Ibex Forest Service cabins and provides a northern access to public lands surrounding Campfire Lake via Trail No. 195, along Elk Creek.
The Porcupine Lowline Trail has been on Forest Service maps since the early 1900s, but the Forest Service does not have a recorded easement across portions of private land. The old trail has not been maintained and is nearly impossible to follow, which has led to confusion by the public and people drifting off the route. In some areas this has caused off-road vehicle damage on private property and degradation of waterways. Disagreeing with legality of the trail, several years ago the property owner locked the gate where the trail enters his family’s land, blocking public access.
There is strong evidence that the Forest Service has built, used and maintained this trail in a “continuous, notorious, and uninterrupted” way that establishes an “unperfected prescriptive easement” through private land — but this can only be decided by a court. Suing to prove the easement could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take several years to settle, with no guarantee of a satisfactory outcome for either side.
As a result of the collaborative efforts of the Crazy Mountain Working Group, the landowner has proposed granting permanent easements through portions of his family’s property that would enable the Forest Service to construct a new trail primarily on public lands. Similar to the old trail, it would provide access to Campfire Lake via Elk Creek, and connect the Porcupine and Ibex cabins. In exchange — and only upon completion of the new trail — the Forest Service would relinquish any interests or claims on the current route.
On March 1st, the Forest Service launched a scoping process to assess this alternative route called the Porcupine Ibex Trail. As proposed, the Porcupine Ibex would be a 12-mile trail upslope and parallel to the Porcupine Lowline. The construction of 7.8 miles of new trail and 4.3 miles of reconstruction on existing trails is estimated to cost between $140,000 to $180,000. Possible funding sources include public-private partnerships. With public support and funding secured, the trail could be built in 2019. Compared to litigation, rerouting the trail presents an economical and timely solution.
Although we agree this proposal has promise, with any new trail construction, there will be impact. PCEC is requesting the Forest Service conduct a more thorough environmental review. We urge the Forest Service to evaluate impacts of the Porcupine Ibex Trail construction and increased foot and bicycle traffic through previously undisturbed terrain with an environmental assessment. We also request that the Forest Service host a public meeting and extend the comment period during this scoping process to allow our community time to learn more about the proposal from Forest Service representatives and to submit informed comments. If the Forest Service decides to construct a new trail, we implore that the best possible trail construction techniques are used to protect wildlife, habitat and water resources.
The Forest Service is currently scoping the proposed trail reroute to identify interested parties and evaluate the level of environmental review required. We encourage you to learn more about the proposed trail and comment.
To learn more and comment on the Porcupine Ibex proposal, visit the project website