Posted on July 05 2019, by Alex Robinson
An unforgiving mountain range of sharp snow-covered peaks breaks the horizon along Interstate 90 and greets drivers headed west from Billings, Montana.
The Crazy Mountains are held dear by locals who use their trails to hike, forage for berries and hunt game. But over the years, they’ve found their access to those paths cut off by land owners, who claim the trails are private.
(Photo courtesy of Paul Kemper)
A coalition of hunters, hikers and conservationists is now fighting to preserve public access to four paths that wind through the southern Crazy Mountains, which are commonly called “the Crazies.” The Montana chapter of the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA), along with a number of other groups, are taking the U.S. Forest Service to court to get an injunction to open the paths back up.
“What’s more valuable than time and opportunity to be out in the woods? Nothing,” said John Sullivan, the chair of the Montana chapter of BHA. “So when you take away that opportunity from the public land sportsman, or the backpacker, the mountain biker, the horse packer, it’s a significant loss to a lifestyle.”
Squabbles over access to the mountains’ trails have been a constant struggle over the years because of a complex checkerboard of land ownership that arose from government policies in the 1800s and 1900s. The federal government reserved even-numbered sections of land and granted odd-numbered parts to the Northern Pacific Railway Company.
When the railway later sold its land, it did so to a number of different buyers.
Conservationists maintain that the deeds for those lands often reserved “an easement in the public” for trails established in the Crazies.
In 2017, the Forest Service stopped managing the trails, which led to private landowners obstructing paths with gates, locks and fencing. In their lawsuit the conservation and hunting groups argued that the agency has abdicated its duty to preserve public access to the trails.
“It would be a shame to let these trails slip away from public ownership just because the Forest Service didn’t have the resources to protect it,” said Sullivan.
The lawsuit also claimed a planned reroute of one of the trails did not go through the necessary environmental analysis when it was approved.
When reached for comment, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service said the agency does “not comment on pending litigation.”
Hunters are worried that the loss of public access to the trails will rob future generations of an opportunity to participate in the pastime they love. They say it will further chip away at the hunting tradition in Montana, and even the United States as a whole.
For Paul Kemper, the loss of access to the trails would be a huge loss. The bowhunter has lived in Montana for three years and has treasured the time he has spent in the Crazies.
The mountains are home to a plethora of wildlife, including moose, bear, mountain goats and elk. There are also a number of alpine lakes in the mountains that are destinations for fishermen and backpackers.
Kemper said being able to access the wildlife in the mountains gives people an appreciation for all things — not just what is usually in front of them.
During a bear hunting trip this spring in the mountains, Kemper came across a grey owl sitting on a trail marker.
“When I got there, this owl turned it’s head and looked at me and I just got to watch him. It was incredible that this owl and I were looking at each other. I got to watch him fly and see where he was nesting,” he said.
“It was the coolest non-hunting experience I have had.”
Restricting access to the rugged lands will simply mean others will not get the opportunity to have similar experiences, Kemper said.
The hunter came across locked gates on one of the trails when he was out hunting for elk last year. He hiked up into the mountains on one of the trails on a Friday night, but by the time he was heading back on Monday afternoon, there was a lock and chain on a gate he had come through.
Kemper said public access to these lands also provides people with a chance to experience life away from their cell phones.
“To be able to get away from people and not have cell service is a thing that’s diminishing,” he said. “And I think it’s crucial for people to disconnect from that aspect of society. And be able to go out with a buddy or alone and to spend time in nature.”
The coalition that is pursuing the lawsuit — which includes Friends of the Crazy Mountains, Skyline Sportsmen and Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife and Habitat — has applied for a preliminary injunction to keep the trails open to the public while their case winds its way through the courts.