Insanity in the Crazies

Why is the U.S. Forest Service failing to maintain historic access routes to Montana's Crazy Mountains?
crazy mountains montana
Photo: Janusz Sobolewski / cc2.0.

A potentially dangerous precedent is playing out in a federal district court in Montana, where hunters, anglers and public lands users of all stripes have launched a Hail Mary in order to protect public access to the iconic Crazy Mountains.

Starting in the mid-2010s, the U.S. Forest Service stopped maintaining and protecting prescriptive access routes across a checkerboard pattern of public and private land on the east side of the Crazies. For the Forest Service, it had apparently grown too tiresome to deal with the well-funded private landowners who continually challenged historic easements—easements that are, quite often, the only routes people can take to reach historic fishing and hunting grounds.

“Under Montana law,” reads a 2021 article in the Helena Independent Record, “a prescriptive easement allowing access across private property is established by ‘open, exclusive, notorious, hostile, adverse, continuous, and uninterrupted use’ for a period of five years. Experts estimate thousands of written and unwritten prescriptive easements exist in the state, with a wide variety of purposes including access to livestock on neighboring private property or public recreation access.”

According to John Sullivan, chairman of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, court proceedings in Billings last week unveiled a revelation – the Forest Service, for whatever reason, just stopped doing its job. Up until about 2016, Sullivan said, historic trails into the public reaches of the Crazy Mountains were maintained and open to the public on the east side of the mountain range, which is situated north of Bozeman.

Sullivan and the plaintiffs, in a suit against the Forest Service, maintain that the agency stopped this required activity without going through the proper processes – there was no litigation, no executive order, nothing. Without warning, maintenance and access protection ceased.

“Basically,” Sullivan said, “we’re asking the Forest Service to do its job.” The job, he said, is prescribed in the Federal Land Management and Policy Act, and it includes maintaining and protecting public access to public lands via existing and oft-used trails and roads, even if those trails cross private lands, as they do in the Crazies. The trails in question have been in use for decades–sometimes longer, Sullivan said.

“Some of those trails are 100 years old,” he said. “They were used by miners, loggers, hunters, anglers, mountain bikers … the list goes on. There have always been prescriptive easements on these trails.”

"These trails are mapped as public trails," says a report by the Western Environmental Law Center, one of the organizations that initiated legal action against the Forest Service in hopes of keeping the agency on task. "They are well-known and have been traditionally and continuously used by the public. Yet people who rely on access opportunities in the Crazy Mountains have been and continue to be confronted with locked gates on these trails."

Sullivan understands the irony of the suit brought against the Forest Service by BHA and other conservation groups in Montana–usually a suit is brought to cease destructive behavior. In this case, the suit, filed in 2019, is asking the Forest Service to continue its foundational policy of maintaining public access across private land in order to provide and protect public access. The latest round of briefs in the case was heard in Billings last week.

Some of the trails on the east side of the Crazies now have gates stretched across them–obstacles the plaintiffs say were put in place by “hostile landowners,” many of them wealthy and in possession of influence over state and federal elected officials and agency employees. In a brief delivered to the court late last year and referenced at the recent hearing, the Forest Service’s response to the litigation is that it no longer believes the trails across private land are viable.

“To us,” Sullivan said, “that was earth shattering.”

Indeed, many stretches of public lands across the West are accessible only thanks to the good graces of the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other public land management agencies and their efforts to maintain those access points. If the Forest Service is allowed to abandon the trails that provide access to the Custer-Gallatin National Forest on the east side of the Crazy Mountains, other landowners whose property is bisected by long-standing roads and trails–prescriptive easements by definition–might get some bad ideas.

“That would put us in a weird spot,” Sullivan says.

To many, it’s already a bit weird. Usually, the checkerboard pattern of public- and private-land interfaces occurs on BLM land, not high-use Forest Service land where trails are used to access some quality fishing and some of the best big-game hunting in south-central Montana. The Crazies are home to trophy elk, mule deer, mountain goats, bears and mountain lions – all targets for sportsmen and women.

For years, public land users have experienced problems with landowners erecting gates and “no trespassing” signs across four specific trails in the Crazies, and up until about 2015, the Forest Service was a staunch defender of public access, citing historic use of the trails by members of the public.

The prescriptive use of the four trails appears in the agency’s 2006 travel management plan — between then and last week’s court hearing, when the Forest Service essentially announced that it had abandoned the idea of maintaining the easements and ensuring public access, it’s clear something has changed. That something, it appears, may be private landowners wearing down the Forest Service using clout built up with politicians ranging from U.S. senators to agency heads and political appointees.

“I think the Forest Service thinks these hostile landowners are just too difficult to deal with,” Sullivan said. If that’s the reason the Forest Service has thrown in the towel and given up protecting historical easements in Montana, that sends a signal to “hostile” landowners all over the West.

If all they need to do is throw a fit, influence a member of Congress or an appointed agency head, what’s to stop other landowners of means from cutting off public access to public lands elsewhere?

Thankfully, the issue is still in court – U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Cavan did not issue a ruling at the Jan. 18 hearing. Sullivan did note that Cavan had lots of questions for Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Smith, who put forth the Forest Service notion that the historic trails are no longer worth protection for public lands users.

“We’ve shined a bit of light on this problem,” Sullivan said. “But how does a group of volunteers take on billionaires who are trying to lock people out of public lands, especially when our own Forest Service won’t do it.”


Pretty easy for BHA to be a critic from their nice comfortable armchair. They haven't put in any real work in the Crazy Mountains to help resolve the situation whatsoever. Meanwhile the FS in cooperation with real hunting and conservation groups are actually slowly resolving the legacy of checkerboard land ownership, creating new public access, and doing it all without chump lawsuits, wasting taxpayer dollars. BHA lost my membership over their stance in the Crazies.

Hey Jerry -
I'm the chair of the Montana Chapter of BHA. I've been involved in the Crazies since ~2015. Nice to meet you. Everyone should be angry about what is transpiring here. We argued the USFS has a duty to maintain and protect public trails. In court the USFS acknowledged the prescriptive easements on these trails were still valid as late a 2017. The USFS attorney conceded in that "hostile landowners" (that is how the USFS described them in court) have blocked these trails and per the position from USFS this act was illegal. The USFS then went on to argue that these easements have been abandoned due to the public being unwilling to cross these obstructions, the same obstructions that the USFS has deemed illegal and failed to remove. They admitted in court to deliberately sitting idly by, allowing these easements to expire, and with them, public access. Now think about that for a while: the USFS is arguing it's OK for handful of regional USFS employees to choose to abandon historic public trails without public involvement. That is not OK.
While all this was going down the USFS was attending private closed door meetings with the same landowners blocking legal public access. We tried for months to get into those meetings, long before any thought of litigation, but we were told "no." Others who spoke out against the illegal gates were booted from those meetings. The landowners, with the support of the USFS, were acting unreasonable and denying any attempts at a conversation with the public to solve the problem. The value of proposed east side swap, which was drawn up by the Yellowstone Club (because they are buying a lot of land in the Crazies), is entirely depended on whether or not those trails are public. If the trails are public, the swap is not valuable or necessary for the public.

Is this an issue, a want or a need. I can see how it could be all three, but with the information provided it is hard to tell, the runs the article runs the risk of criticizing others for being selfish while sounding selfish. What are all the reasons for the landowners actions? My property abuts USFS property. Although there are no access roads to the trails across my land, they are close enough to observe the activity. If those trails went across my land I would gate them too. The abuse exhibited by some and the proliferation of very powerful ATV's have in some places been the last straw. Machines are wonderful tools and used responsibly they enhance the experience. Too many think getting there and the trip back is the experience, there are plenty of other places for that.

Located a few miles south of Four Corners, MT in the Spanish Peaks is Cherry Lake. Home to a dwindling population of a native American fish, the Westslope Cutthroat Trout. Cherry Creek flows north out of that little lake into the Flying D Ranch. 175 square-miles of restored land where bison and antleope graze, and it is also enough land to support a couple of wolf packs. Bought by Ted Turner [Tuner Enterprises] for $21 million dollars the Flying D is under a conservation easement, so the land will remain unsubdivided, and open space forever. Were it not for Turner's policy to restict access to his land, and the trailhead to Cherry Lake with its mountain hike up to that little 7 acre lake it would be fished-out in short order. While access to many public lands is limited, and blocked in other areas, it is no wonder U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Cavan did not issue a ruling because it is a very difficult case. While historic trails are worth protection for public lands users, perhaps a lottery system could be used. States use lotteries for a sorts of big game hunting. Why not use one for a small number of the public to access those historic trails?

Once again the wealthy and well connected get to call the shots on public land. WHY? This giving in to moneyed interests needs to stop!