The war on access is becoming the defining public lands issue of the 21st century. And ground zero in that war may be the Crazy Mountains northeast of Bozeman.

Private landowners there have been shutting off traditional public access to Forest Service land interspersed with private holdings throughout the mountain range. Because of old square-mile land grants the federal government gave to railroads as incentives to build new lines, sections, or square miles, of private land alternate with sections of public land in this area.

Historically, private landowners have allowed public access across their land for people to hike, fish and hunt on adjacent public land. But that’s changed. Now access across private land has been blocked on four key trails in the area.

The Forest Service has been negotiating new rights-of-way for trails and is set to abandon claims to some old routes. A group of environmental groups has sued, alleging the agency hasn’t exerted sufficient legal effort to reopen existing trails. And the groups have asked a judge to halt construction on a new alternate trail route until the issue is resolved.

They are raising a valid point.

Forest officials are commended for their efforts to solve this dilemma amicably. Litigation – particularly at taxpayer expense – is rarely a desirable route. But some things are just too important to give up without a fight.

If Forest Service officials abandon their claims to historic public rights-of-way across private land in the Crazies, they may live to regret it. Access to public land disputes are arising all over the West. And in many cases there will be no reasonable alternative routes around disputed sections of trail. And if those cases make it to court, private landowners will point to cases where the agency gave up its claims and demand the same treatment in newer disputes. And that will be a hard argument to rebut.

Vast public lands are an American heritage. Cutting off long-standing access routes to public land is denying us all a right to enjoy what we share ownership of collectively. Forest officials must go to the mat on our behalf on most – if not all – of these cases, even if they involve extensive legal battles.

Failing that, future generations will have much diminished access to public land. And they will wonder what we were thinking when we failed to fight for it.


Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Nick Ehli, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Will Swearingen, community member
  • Angie Wasia, community member

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