A national forest proposal to build a new trail system is receiving significant public interest due to related issues of public access and encroachment.
The Gallatin National Forest has extended its comment period and scheduled a second public meeting on a proposal to exchange a road easement for a trail easement on private property adjacent to national forest land.
District Ranger Lisa Stoeffler was unable to address all the questions of more than 50 people who attended the initial meeting March 14, so a second meeting was scheduled.
Under the proposal, which is supported by the Gallatin Valley Land Trust and the Lone Mountain Ranch, the Forest Service would give up its 1966 easement along a logging road, West Fork Road 166B, that provides access from Highway 64 north to trails in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.
The road would be closed at Highway 64, which is the main road between U.S. Highway 191 in the Gallatin Canyon and Big Sky Resort.
In return, the primary landowner and those around him would provide year-round easements for a seven-mile trail system that would link into the wilderness trails. They would also pay for creating and maintaining the trail system.
It would close much of Basin Road 166D, which extends to the Forest Service boundary and allows access to Ridge Trail 403.
The Forest Service has worked with landowners for a decade, and three similar proposals have failed.
GVLT was brought in a few years ago to develop the trail concept, but it’s not advocating the proposal, said GVLT stewardship manager Peter Brown.
“We’re not an advocacy group. Our mission is developing non-motorized access to public lands, and we have a lot of experience working with diverse parties,” Brown said. “If the proposal involved motorized access, we wouldn’t be working on it.”
Bozeman resident Rick Reese told the Chronicle he isn’t comfortable with the proposal, even though it has merit.
“Even though there’s a lot of good aspects. On balance, the benefit is not commensurate with what the public is losing,” Reese said. “Public access is a red flag for me.”
Reese was the first president of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and was chairman of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail group in Utah, where the group fought the Forest Service for failing to maintain its access points.
Reese would modify the GVLT proposal to keep the West Fork access road open to the forest boundary.
“You’ve got a proven easement to the forest boundary. Let’s not give it up,” Reese said.
Some take issue with the plan because of its origin: a landowner who built on an easement through his property.
The upper section of the West Fork Road travels through almost 500 acres owned by Texas lobbyist Stan Schlueter since 2001.
In 2002, Schlueter built an 8,000-square-foot mansion within the 60-foot-wide easement. Schleuter rerouted the road but it still passes close to the mansion.
Forest spokeswoman Mariah Leuschen said the Forest Service didn’t take immediate action to stop Schlueter from building. The problem with the reroute is it takes people off the easement, resulting in trespassing, Leuschen said.
“Before he started building, it should have been brought up higher (in management),” Leuschen said. “Once the foundation was in, we just started negotiating other options.”
Schleuter’s spokesman Brian Kuehl said Schleuter had a verbal agreement with the Forest Service before he started building.
“There is this perception that Stan went out in the middle of the night and built this place,” Kuehl said. “(The FS and Schleuter) had talked about what land they might swap and what the agreement would look like.”
Now, Schlueter has agreed to take the road easement in exchange for an easement along Trail 403.
The Forest Service doesn’t have a formal easement for Trail 403, but the trail has a history of public use. The Forest Service could claim a prescriptive easement if the issue ever came under a legal test, Leuschen said.
“I think reasonable minds can disagree, but a lot of minds have looked at this,” Kuehl said. “It’s a good outcome that will be open forever to the public.”
Once the Forest Service has considered all the public comments, it could accept the proposal, but Leuschen said the public comments could derail that.