On May 22, 1949, rifle in hand, Paul Van Cleve Jr. threatened the operator of a road grader performing maintenance on the Big Timber Canyon road on the east side of the Crazy Mountains. Van Cleve claimed that the road was his.
Van Cleve was taken to court and proved wrong: the road had a public easement and today we can still use that road to access Half Moon campground.
Seventy years later the question of who can use certain trails and roads in the Crazy Mountains remains unresolved. While the public has obtained easements on some routes, many routes are without easements. This doesn’t necessarily mean these routes are private, it just means the question hasn’t been legally decided.
So when a landowner posted a historic trail on the east side of the Crazy Mountains about four years ago I decided to test the question. I was rewarded with a criminal trespass ticket, several thousand dollars in legal fees and a problem that was much more complex and time consuming than I imagined. While public donations paid my legal fees, nobody was willing to ultimately settle this question in court. It turns out that was a good thing.
The truth is that the real problem is the checkerboard. Even if the trails were opened by litigation, the public would have to walk miles across private land to access isolated islands of public land. The vast majority of public land would remain inaccessible. This situation was also problematic for the landowners. In short, it was ripe for a collaborative effort to produce better results for both the public and landowners.
The landowners stepped up and formed a working group with representatives from both sides. I was happy that a better solution was being architected. What surprised me was the venom of some of the public against the working group. If anyone had cause to be angry it was me. However, for me it has always been about access, not revenge. It became clear some people were in it for revenge.
When the working group came up with a solution to open access on the west side the avengers obstructed. They undermined, they spread misinformation, they launched personal attacks, and they sued. Nonetheless, a new trail has been built and the public can use it to access Campfire Lake.
Now a land swap solution has been crafted for the east side of the Crazy Mountains. It was done by the Crazy Mountain Access Project, which is a spin-off of the working group. It would eliminate much checkerboard, open a huge area of elk habitat, and vastly improve the hunting opportunities compared to what would be obtained by suing to open the old trails. It would secure access for the Crow tribe to Crazy Peak. It would secure access to Cave Lake, where the state record golden trout was caught. A new trail would be built to create a 40-mile loop traversing the range.
Of course the solution isn’t perfect. However, instead of urging the public to engage and improve the swap, the avengers are attacking the participants again. A recent editorial didn’t even mention what the land swap did or how it could be improved. Instead it sowed doubt by questioning who was paying for the trail. They never once mentioned how difficult, expensive, and unproductive their lawsuit-first approach would be to open the trails.
Perhaps now we should reflect on President Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘Man in the Arena’ speech where he points out it’s far easier to be a critic than to do the yeoman’s work. The yeomen here are working on a permanent solution that will benefit the public in perpetuity. The avengers are taking the easy route of obstructing progress and attacking the yeomen.
This tactic only reinforces the status-quo of limited public access. What we need is an informed public and more people willing to engage on this potential solution. I would urge everyone to visit www.crazymountainproject.com. Educate yourself on what this will do and provide productive comments through their portal.
Rob Gregoire is an avid hunter and angler who resides in Bozeman