Crazy Mountains

Cows graze in a field against a backdrop of the Crazy Mountains on July 16.

Work will begin next week on a new trail on the west side of the Crazy Mountains after a judge squelched a push to block it last week.

The Forest Service announced that construction of the Porcupine-Ibex Trail would begin the week of Aug. 19 and is likely to take six to eight weeks. The project is meant to reroute and replace parts of a historical trail northeast of Wilsall where access has been disputed for years.

The construction this year would put in 2.7 miles of new trail connecting the Porcupine Cabin Trailhead to North Fork Elk Creek Trail (No. 195). Another 6.4 miles of trail would be built in the years to come, according to Forest Service documents.

Forest officials proposed the new trail in 2018 as a way to resolve the long-running access disputes over the old trail. Landowners and some conservationists support the project as a step forward in access battles in the Crazies. Other conservationists and access advocates oppose it, though, seeing it as the agency caving to private landowners.

The trails affected by the reroute, the Porcupine Lowline and Elk Creek trails, are two of four mentioned in a lawsuit brought against the Forest Service by four conservation groups — Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife Habitat, Friends of the Crazy Mountains, Skyline Sportsmen and the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

The suit accuses the Forest Service of not doing enough to protect access in the island mountain range northeast of Livingston.

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the Custer Gallatin National Forest gave a $27,000 contract for the Porcupine Ibex project to Bo Trails Inc. A week later, the groups asked a federal judge to order an injunction against the project.

They argued the Forest Service was legally required to spend more time looking at the project’s environmental impacts. The Forest Service countered that it had met that requirement in its travel plan and a roads and trails plan from several years ago, and that it didn’t need to conduct any deeper analysis.

U.S. District Judge Susan P. Watters sided with the Forest Service earlier this month, writing that the reroute appeared to be the culmination of work toward resolving the access conflict over the past several years.

Forest officials are urging people to use different access points on the west and north side of the Crazies during construction. In a news release, the agency pointed to the Cottonwood Trailhead, the Cottonwood Creek Trail and the Trespass Creek Trail as routes offering similar access to that area.

The lawsuit is still going forward. Attorneys for the Forest Service have until Aug. 19 to respond to the original complaint from the groups, a 100-page document detailing the long history of access disputes in the island mountain range.

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

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