Increasingly, public access has become a contested issue in Montana, with approximately one-third of our landownership being federal public lands.
The Crazy Mountains, established in 1906, are part of the U.S. Forest Service Custer Gallatin National Forest. Yet, some private landowners would like to privatize these public lands by blocking public access to them.
One such access point is historic Forest Service Trail No. 115, more recently renumbered No. 136. In documentation provided from my Freedom Of Information Act request, in fall 2015, a public hunter named Joe Rookhuizen tried to utilized this trail, marked on his Forest Service map as “open to bike, stock & foot travel.” Yet, the access was obstructed when he got there. Contacting the Forest Service and Fish, Wildlife and Parks about the lock produced no results. Frustrated, Rookhuizen wrote a letter to U.S. Sen. Steve Daines: “I am very discouraged as our government agencies don't seem to be able to do what they were created to do… The Ranch that the forest service trail goes through is called Hailstone Ranch owned by the family Langhus… we need help opening these accesses up. They continue to shut out more land every year.”
Daines wrote Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson, who replied, "It is a historic trail that dates back a century or more. The Forest Service maintains that it holds unperfected prescriptive rights on this trail system as well as up Sweet Grass Creek to the north based on a history of maintenance with public funds and historic and continued public and administrative use. The process for resolving this and other comparable access disputes is expensive, lengthy and time consuming. With limited staff and budget, the Forest is unable to immediately address these complex property law issues and often times these disputes remain unresolved until brought before a court of law.”
Fast forward to the fall of 2016; another public hunter, Rob Gregoire, had an elk tag for Hunt District 580. Seeing Trail No. 136 on the Forest Service map providing trail access, he verified this was a publicly accessible route with the Forest Service to make every good-faith effort to avoid trespassing on private property, sticking to the designated trail. Returning from his hunt, he was met by and issued a citation from the Sweet Grass County Sheriff's Office for criminal trespass.
Trail No. 115/136 "part of a century-old trail system that circumnavigates the Crazy Mountains, and connected historic U.S. Forest Service guard stations (many of which are now rental cabins). Indeed a Forest Guard Station once existed upon the trail at issue at its juncture in Big Timber Canyon. Historically, forest rangers rode their work hitches on this trail system, administering public lands grazing allotments to private ranchers, managing mineral activity, putting up timber sales, fighting fire, and maintaining access for hunting and fishing for all Americans who might seek to use their national forests."
Despite historic access predating its purchase by nearly half a century, the public are being denied access and now, threatened with criminal charges, fines and possible incarceration. This is public intimidation for what should be a civil suit between the landowner and the Forest Service, such as the Wonder Ranch v. USDA Forest Service in Madison County.
At the very least, Sweet Grass County Attorney Pat Dringman should recuse himself, since his wife owns the Sweet Grass Ranch at the northern end of Forest Service Trail No. 136. Dringman should drop the Gregoire case, leaving the landowners to pursue a civil suit with the Forest Service, rather than perpetuating the harassment of the public who are rightfully utilizing a documented and published historical public access trail.