An alternative path forward in the Crazy Mountains
Like many Montanans, the Crazy Mountains holds special significance to our family. Back in his early twenties, my husband maintained trails and repaired fences in the Crazies as part of a hitch in the Montana Conservation Corps. He took me on a hunting trip to the Ibex cabin when we were pregnant with our first daughter -- I was hooked. Whether backpacking, biking, skiing or just out for a day hike, I love spending time in the backcountry with my family in this stunning island range.
Several years ago, we celebrated our anniversary with a kids-free weekend getaway at the Ibex Cabin. We decided to explore a trail that we hadn’t walked on previous trips, #267, the Porcupine Lowline trail. Before long, the trail began crisscrossing logging roads and animal paths -- we were clearly in a cow pasture and had lost the trail. This was long before offline GPS maps were available on cell phones, and we hadn’t brought a map and compass. It was supposed to be a casual hike. Discouraged, we turned around, eventually finding our way back to the cabin on a different unmarked trail.
Not until later did I understand our experience was pretty typical for a hiker in the Crazy Mountains, especially on trail #267. These routes have been on official U.S. Forest Service maps for a century, but with minimal signage and lack of maintenance, today they can be very challenging to navigate.
There is a lot of public debate and controversy over access in the Crazy Mountains. A coalition of groups sued the Forest Service over failure to protect public access rights on four trails, including #267. Recently, three community members were found guilty of criminal trespass in the same area. As I sat in the courtroom in Livingston, surrounded by my neighbors, colleagues and friends awaiting the verdict, I was crushed. These issues are going well beyond public access, they are dividing our community.
And let’s be honest about trail #267 -- it is a trail that crosses through six miles of private property. It’s a trail where, for six miles, you cannot hunt, camp or leave the trail to pick be without trespassing. Trail #267 crosses Elk Creek so many times it has significantly degraded the creekbed. The multi-use and shared management of this trail has been challenging for landowners, the Forest Service and the public for years. We shouldn’t be suing our neighbors, we should be working together to find solutions.
There is an alternative path forward. For the past two years, I have been participating in the Crazy Mountain Working Group, an unlikely assemblage of locals that includes ranchers, government agencies, business owners, hunting and conservation groups. We represent disparate perspectives, but what we agree on is this: we are far more likely to resolve complex issues by coming together, listening to each other and focusing on solutions.
As a result of the dialogue in the working group, the Forest Service plans to break ground in August on a reroute of trail #267. Landowners have agreed to grant permanent easements through sections of their property so the new route can cross primarily on National Forest. This would connect the Porcupine and Ibex Cabins, and provide public access to Elk Creek and several sections of public land. Combined with Elk and Trespass Creeks, the Porcupine Ibex trail will eventually create a grand loop on the western side of the range.
If allowed to proceed as planned, the first phase of the trail reroute to Elk Creek could be completed in time for hunting season -- this year. I walked the reroute from Porcupine Cabin to Elk Creek myself. It is incredibly scenic, with mossy trees and impressive views. I cannot wait to explore this area with my children, the berry picking will be sublime.
While one reroute won’t resolve every controversy in the Crazies, similar conversations are happening around the south and eastern part of the range. These results take time, but progress is being made.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to fly over the range in a Cessna. From above, the invisible checkerboard lines that create all of the conflict do not exist. The working and wild lands are interwoven and connected into a vast and impressive landscape. I believe we can rise above the conflict and find lasting solutions. It’s going to take a lot of engagement, tolerance and understanding, but the rewards could be incredible. Let’s get to work; time is of the essence.
Erica Lighthiser is a Program Director for Park County Environmental Council and an organizer for Montana Mountain Mamas. She participates in the Crazy Mountain Working Group.