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After years of difficult conversations about checkerboard land ownership and public access rights, environmental groups and area landowners took Thursday to celebrate the official opening of a new trail on the west side of the Crazy Mountains.

John Salazar, a hunter and board member for the Montana Wildlife Federation, cut a red ribbon over the new Porcupine-Ibex Trail just outside of Wilsall. The new trail winds through 16.6 miles of dense forest, open meadows and rock outcroppings around the foothills of the Crazy Mountains.

It’s a reroute of Porcupine Lowline Trail (No. 267), which cut through about 6 miles of private land. The new trail connects the Porcupine and Ibex Forest Service cabins along the range’s western side, and most of it crosses public land.

“I’d love to tell you today about the story of a trail, but it’s about a heck of a lot more than that,” said Erica Lighthiser, deputy director of the Park County Environmental Council. “This is a story about local people coming together and trying to find some resolution to challenging problems.”

Public access in the Crazies has long been fraught by a checkerboard land ownership pattern that’s a relic of railroad land grants from the late 1800s. The pattern put isolated parcels of private land in the middle of public land, and vice versa.

This public-private “checker boarding” means that in many areas of the Crazies, people must cross through private land in order to reach public land. That’s often done via historical prescriptive easements, many of which are disputed by area landowners.

When members of the public have been continuously and without interruption accessing a property for five years “in a manner that is open, notorious, and clearly visible to the owner of the land” and “hostile and adverse to the owner,” they have an easement that allows them to cross that private property without permission.

Many say that the Porcupine Lowline Trail and other trails throughout the Crazies are made up of easements that must be defended, even if that means defending them in court.

Porcupoine Ibex Trail Reroute Ribbon Cutting

From left, Erica Lighthiser, Nathan Anderson, John Salazar, Rob Gregoire and Ned Zimmerman participate in a ribbon cutting for the Porcupine Ibex Trail reroute on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, on the west side of the Crazy Mountains.

Porcupoine Ibex Trail Reroute Ribbon Cutting

The Bridger Mountain Range is visible from the Porcupine Ibex Trail on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021.

Some area landowners maintain that easements marked in the Crazies don’t exist and the public has no right to cross certain chunks of private land.

Others, including members of the Crazy Mountain Working Group, have taken a more collaborative approach.

The Crazy Mountain Stockgrowers Association formed the working group with members of the Park County Environmental Council and Montana Wildlife Federation to find a solution to public access issues several years ago.

One of the working group’s priorities was to resolve conflict around public use of the Porcupine Lowline Trail No. 267, which crossed over rancher Ned Zimmerman’s land.

“The trail got so downgraded that people were running all over (the Zimmerman) ranch,” Salazar said. “As the public, we have to be good neighbors …. Are we going to find every solution? I don’t know, but we certainly are going to try.”

After years of discussions, the working group decided the best course of action was to move the trail to public land further upslope. Now, the Porcupine-Ibex Trail squiggles its way through varied, spectacular terrain with views of the Shields Valley.

Rerouting the trail was a collaborative effort, which Salazar said is special because the political climate is very “us versus them.”

Zimmerman said getting to know people in the working group got him to consider how he could be a better neighbor to the public and, at the same time, protect his private property rights and run his cattle.

Porcupoine Ibex Trail Reroute Ribbon Cutting

Ned Zimmerman attends a ceremony for the newly rerouted Porcupine Ibex trail on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. Zimmerman blocked access to the former Porcupine Lowline trail, that ran through his property, for years, arguing that the Forest Service had no legal right to the original Porcupine Lowline trail. Zimmerman proposed the reroute in 2018 to the Crazy Mountain Working Group, a group of landowners, conservationists and access advocates.

“I’d like to encourage other landowners, if you run into some (non-governmental organization) and it feels like they are out to get you, keep looking around, because there’s probably somebody who is willing to work with you,” he said. “Don’t just assume that everybody is all alike and everybody has the same agenda.”

The U.S. Forest Service has been trying to resolve some of the access conflict in the Crazies by swapping parcels of public land near the range’s exterior for parcels of private land in the range’s interior.

In May, the agency approved the South Crazy Land Exchange. The deal allowed the Forest Service to trade about 1,920 acres of federal land for about 1,880 acres of private land. Rock Creek Ranch and Wild Eagle Mountain Ranch traded land, but a heavily-contested trade with Crazy Mountain Ranch didn’t advance.

Now the agency is considering a second land exchange on the east side of the range that includes the Yellowstone Club. In July, a subsidiary of the club purchased the Crazy Mountain Ranch — an 18,000 acre property at the base of the range near Clyde Park.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit over easements in the Crazies is pending in federal district court.

Friends of the Crazy Mountains, Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife and Habitat, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and Skyline Sportsmen sued the Forest Service in 2019 over claims that the agency wasn’t defending public access rights on four trails in the range.

Those trails are Porcupine Lowline (No. 267), Elk Creek (No. 195), East Trunk (No. 115/136) and Sweet Grass (No. 122).

Kathryn QannaYahu, who runs Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife and Habitat, said on Thursday that moving the Porcupine Lowline Trail to a higher elevation will make access more difficult for certain users and the public loses pre-existing motorized access entirely.

The old trail was more direct and it’s at a lower elevation, which makes it better for horses and people with disabilities, she said.

“The abandoning of the easements in this case was not to the public’s benefit,” QannaYahu said. “We lost out, and we’re trying to get (those easements) restored.”

The danger of relinquishing historical prescriptive easements is privatization of land and natural resources for outfitting, recreation and personal use by private landowners, QannaYahu said.

Salazar said that going the route of litigation rather than collaboration leads to an all-or-nothing outcome where groups either win it all or lose it all, and the idea that landowners around the Crazies are rich and seeking privatization is a misconception.

“These are working class people on working ranches,” he said. “They are not rich landowners trying to keep the public out.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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