On a crisp October morning, I recently joined a small group of outdoor enthusiasts, ranchers, and reporters to celebrate the public’s newest access point into Montana’s Crazy Mountains.
The Porcupine-Ibex trail is a 17-mile non-motorized trail that traverses public lands and connects the Porcupine and Ibex Forest Service cabins on the West side of the range. It traverses spectacular country, provides access to pine forests, high peaks, and alpine lakes. It also commands sweeping views of the Shields River valley.
The final phase of the trail was constructed by the U.S. Forest Service in October and is already being enjoyed by mountain bikers, hikers, and runners. It also opened just in time for Montana’s general rifle season and will facilitate many memorable harvests and hunting trips for years to come.
If this was the story of a normal trail, I would stop writing. But there is more to it. This is a story about collaboration. This is a story of public land users working together with landowners to find common ground. This is about trying to resolve a long-simmering public access dispute that has divided Montanans for years. It’s about not giving up.
Historically, the old Porcupine trail was at the center of an acrimonious public access debate. The old trail depicted on Forest Service maps crossed through miles of private property. It was difficult for users to navigate, and the public often got confused and wandered through cow fields looking for the route. The landowner eventually disputed the legality of the trail and placed gates to prevent trespass. Public access users were not happy. What followed was one of the more prominent public access disputes in the Crazy Mountains.
I’m a resident of Livingston and I hunt and fish in the Crazy Mountains. Although I’m a public lands access proponent, I’ve also made friends with many local landowners and I’ve listened to their perspectives. In the case of this trail dispute, there was more to the story. It wasn’t so black and white. I wanted to help investigate other solutions that didn’t involve a lawsuit.
As a representative of the Montana Wildlife Federation, I began meeting with the Crazy Mountain Working Group, an informal coalition of local conservationists and ranchers helping to resolve public access disputes while protecting property rights. It took them a while to accept me, but once trust was established, we could get down to work.
Through this working group, we debated and discussed options that didn’t involve lawsuits. Rather, we planted the idea of rerouting the contested trail onto public lands and improving it for public use. Reaching agreements about the details, planning the route, and eventually constructing the new trail didn’t happen overnight. It took years of conversations, trust-building, and then Forest Service analysis.
Many years and a few white hairs later, we can now look back and proudly say ‘mission accomplished’. We have a new trail that future generations will use and enjoy. Compromise and collaboration won’t always work for every public access dispute, but sometimes, it’s the right recipe. I sincerely hope this new trail can serve as an example of what is possible when landowners and public access users set aside their differences and learn to work together.
By MWF Board Member John Salazar.