Public land access still a work in progressJuly 31, 2019
Column by Brandon Butler
When I was living in Montana, I spent some time hunting elk. Not so successfully, as I only have one cow to my credit. But I burned some boot leather and saw a lot of beautiful country. One specific area I found particularly enchanting was the Crazy Mountains.
The Crazy Mountains are about 100 miles north of Yellowstone National Park. With peaks over 11,000 feet, the Crazies loom over the surrounding prairie landscape like an island in a sea of grass. Yet for all their natural beauty, these mountains have been clouded by a shadow of ugliness for decades as access disputes between private land owners and public land users continued to mount.
The mix of public and private land in the Crazies has created controversy for many years. Lots of corners exist where two pieces of public land meet opposite of each other, and two pieces of private land meet opposite of each other, all touching the same fence post. Like the red and black squares on a checkerboard. A ridiculous corner hopping rule, which basically says if you come to one of these fenceposts that marks the corner where public and private lands come together, you cannot cross over that fencepost, from one piece of public land to another piece of public land without trespassing, because you are passing through private air space. This rule makes access to millions of acres of public land across the west illegal. Giving adjacent landowners exclusivity to public lands owned and paid for by all Americans.
Thankfully, there are conservation organizations across our country working on behalf of all of us who value public access to solve situations like this one. In the case of the Crazies, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), spearheaded an effort to improve public access. RMEF has worked with members of the Crazy Mountain Working Group and other partners, including the U.S. Forest Service, Crazy Mountain Stockgrowers Association, private citizens and more, to come up with a plan for constructing a 12-mile trail to allow for better access for non-motorized travel. Construction is set to begin this summer on a nearly 3-mile long segment of the trail.
“Securing access in and around the Crazies has been complicated and challenging for a long, long time,” said Blake Henning, RMEF chief conservation officer. “We are grateful for landowners, agency partners and others who are working collaboratively to make this new access venture possible.”
Spend any time around government or organizational rule making, and you quickly come to realize compromise is the way to results. There are organizations and individuals on each end of the spectrum that are so entrenched in their beliefs and desires that they are incapable of compromise. It’s the majority in the middle is who to thank more often than not for action, which requires a little give and take. Numerous concerned groups working together has led to better access in the Crazy Mountains.
“Sitting down with stakeholders of differing interests and respectfully discussing challenging issues to find longstanding, reasonable solutions strengthens our communities. This is what the Crazy Mountain Working Group is cultivating,” said Stacy Donald, Crazy Mountain Stockgrowers Association vice president and a member of the Crazy Mountain Working Group.
Conservation organizations that I choose to be part of, are those that try to find ways to protect natural resources and public access to those resources, without expressly alienating those who may have legitimate issues with the management of those resources. After learning about the efforts of RMEF to collaborate and seek a solution in the Crazies, I feel better than ever about sending in my membership dues each year. Even if you never step foot on a specific piece of public property, it should feel good knowing you have that option and that thousands of your fellow citizens will benefit.
“RMEF remains committed to working with all parties in finding solutions to complex on-the-ground access issues. Creating and improving public access lies at the heart of our mission,” added Henning.
If you have never visited Montana, add it to your bucket list. The Big Sky Country is worth every minute and dollar it takes to get there. If you’re looking for a place to hike that isn’t overrun with people, like the national parks can be during the peak season, smaller mountain ranges around the state offer incredible hikes. And now you have better access to the Crazy Mountains, one of the prettiest ranges I’ve ever experienced.
See you down the trail…
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