Thursday, June 29, 2017


Sometimes, being number one isn’t such a great accomplishment. For example, Montana is the number one Western state when it comes to public land that the public can simply not access.
A legacy from the days of building transcontinental railroads, some public land is “checker-boarded” in with private land and only touches at the corners. “Corner crossing” is now legal access in Wyoming, but Montana legislators continue to drag their feet and shoot this issue down quickly every time it is introduced. The result? Some 724,000 aces of public land the public cannot utilize.
A more difficult to resolve issue arises from some large tracts of public land completely surrounded by private lands. These “land-locked” sections amount to an additional 1,231,000 acres of public land being effectively “off-limits.”
The grand total between these two issues alone amounts to just a hair shy of two million acres of public land inaccessible to said public.
The trend seems to be for more of this happening rather than less. Although the very latest incident in our area instantly led the Federal Employee’s Union and some journalists to essentially ignore the core issue in order to get in on some additional Trump-bashing, the trend has been going on for multiple Presidential administrations.
Difficulties most often arise when new owners, usually rich and from out-of-state, buy a ranch or other large section of land. Even though there was a public road or trail running through said land which had been used as a public access to National Forest land for generations or even a century or more, some new owners have arbitrarily decided to simply gate off and/or close the road/trail. With very few exceptions, the Forest Service generally just throws their hands up and says, “Oh well. We’re not gonna touch the issue. Let the county fight it.” Although Montana counties don’t have the budget federal agencies do, they often do fight the closure in court and sometimes even get it resolved. On the other hand…and Sweetgrass County springs immediately to mind here…the county can sometimes be part of the problem.
The Forest Service, as big as it is, is actually only a tiny sliver of the Department of Agriculture, which in total has one federal employee for every eleven farmers actually left in the United States. Budget allocations, when redistributed, never ever seem to touch administration, bureaucracy, or fire. Partially, I suspect, by design, when budgets get tight the first departments to fall under the hatchet are basically anything which might be of benefit or use to the public…roads, trails and recreation. Fighting for public access to public land doesn’t even register on the radar of the vast majority of public servants paid to “manage” said lands. Not that managing resources like timber even happens anymore.
I shit you not, I’ve sat through more than one Forest Circus meeting, briefing, or training session in which some grand new master plan, or even an annoying, stupid, and petty local policy change, was presented. At the end, when the presenter asked if there were any questions, as the proud fly in the ointment I would ask something like, “What about the public?” or “How does this affect the public?” More often than not, the response was an open-mouthed deer-in-the-headlights look and an awkward silence because, when it came right down to it, these public servants hadn’t even considered us pesky taxpayers and citizens.
Every now and then, though, an individual who actually gives a damn about the pesky old “public” in public lands, manages to squirm their way through the labyrinth of bureaucratic and political filters (think of the Maginot Line without an exposed flank) and land in a leadership position where they can actually do some good for the public.
IMHO, Alex Sienkiewicz was one of those good guys. He was District Ranger for the Yellowstone District of the Custer-Gallatin National Forest…we’ll go down the rabbit trail of “combining” ranger districts and national forests some other time.
I met and talked to him on two separate occasions when I went to the USFS office in Livingston with questions. Even though I probably couldn’t spell or pronounce his last name correctly to save my life, he impressed me with his pro-public stance on access issues and he was very articulate about how and why historic and/or prescriptive easements were accesses.  
This is all very important in our neck of the wood because of the Crazy Mountains. The Crazies are an island range surrounded by vast sagebrush flatlands, roughly forty miles long and fifteen miles wide. For all of that area, which was once administered by two national forests and three ranger districts, there are three public access corridors on the west side, one on the north, and one on the east, with really nothing on the south.
The end result is that there are vast tracts of land that are essentially inaccessible to the public. Additionally, an adjacent landowner who cuts off access to the national forest can essentially use it as private land since no one else can get in there. Some land-owners want to keep it that way and some want to cut off even more public land. Outfitter-guides especially like having hundreds of acres of public land which only their clients can access and hunt.
Alex Sienkiewicz tried to keep the relative handful of public access routes and trails open, and he has been punished and banished for his sins. By the serving the public rather than special interest groups, he ran afoul of the Montana Stock Growers Association and the Montana Outfitters & Guides Association. These entities went straight to Senator Steve Daines and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue complaining about Alex’s stance on prescriptive easements. First, Alex was forbidden to testify in a Sweetgrass Countrytrespassing case involving a hunter accessing the National Forest via Forest Trail # 115/116. Then the Forest Circus just plain shit-canned him as districtranger, no doubt to be replaced with someone more pliable.
As usual, no good deed goes unpunished and the only thing an R-D election changes is the particular special interest groups who count for more than the public the government "serves."

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