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A conservation foundation gave an award to a Forest Service ranger who was temporarily removed from his post last year during an internal review of his handling of access disputes.

The Cinnabar Foundation gave the Jim Posewitz Professional Conservation Award to Alex Sienkiewicz, the Yellowstone district ranger for the Custer Gallatin National Forest. The award was presented to Sienkiewicz last Friday in Helena.

The foundation wrote in a news release that Sienkiewicz was given the award for “holding his ground” in conflicts with private landowners over disputed access points in the Crazy Mountains, the island range northeast of Livingston with a complex mix of private and public land. The range has drawn national attention because of its disputed trails and roads, including one that resulted in a hunter being cited for trespassing while on a trail he believed to be public.

Sienkiewicz was removed from his job for a few months last year during an internal review of his handling of disputes with some private landowners. The conflicts grew out of complaints that landowners were illegally blocking public trails that crossed private land. There are many trails that lack a written easement but that the Forest Service considers public based on historic use, what’s called a prescriptive easement.

Sienkiewicz had directed his staff and the public to use certain trails without seeking permission because the agency believes they’re public. Using them without seeking permission also helps build the legal case that they’re public.

Private landowners who disagreed that certain trails were public raised their concerns with Montana U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue last spring. Sienkiewicz was pulled from his job in June 2017, a move that upset several conservationists and access advocates. He was reinstated in October, after the investigation ended.

The foundation’s release said Sienkiewicz “simply defended the public’s right to historic access to the Custer-Gallatin National Forest against a barrage of challenges from landowners, commodities groups and politicians.”

“I’m humbled and honored,” Sienkiewicz said in an interview.

It was the second time the Posewitz award was given. According to the foundation’s website, the award is meant to recognize people working in natural resource management who “have made a significant contribution to Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.” It’s named for Jim Posewitz, a well-known conservationist and the Cinnabar Foundation’s first executive director.

The award came with $5,000 for Sienkiewicz to direct to conservation groups of his choice. The money will go to the Bighorn River Alliance, Montana Conservation Corps, Montana Raptor Conservation Center, Gallatin Valley Land Trust and Bitter Root Land Trust.

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

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