Betraying the public trust

By: 
Louisa Wilcox — Guest Columnist
Thursday, September 5, 2019

Betrayal of the public trust can be subtle and incremental, which is why protecting our shared natural heritage requires constant vigilance. Here in Park County, with abundant wildlife and public lands bordering our nation’s oldest park, the stakes are especially high.      

Two recent incidents highlight the ways in which the public costs of private avarice can sometimes subtly mount over months or even years, but nonetheless add up to a tragic loss for us all. One involves poaching in Yellowstone Park, the other “trespass” in the Crazy Mountains — cases that appear quite different but share important similarities.   

The “trespass” case involves three local men, Johnathan Hettinger, Joseph Bullington, and Nathan Howard who attempted a hike on the west side of the Crazies and found that the Forest Service trail had been obscured — without authorization by the Forest Service. Last month a jury found them guilty of trespassing. They could each be fined $500 and sentenced to up to six months in jail. 

In the poaching case, Livingston residents Trey Juhnke, Corbin Simmons and Austin Peterson were convicted of killing a mountain lion last December in Yellowstone Park. They claimed that they did not know that the emblazoned signs lining the northern border of Yellowstone Park meant that the Park lay on the other side — hardly a plausible claim for a bunch of local boys. 

The incident was initially picked up nationally and internationally, but minus the rest of the story. For inexplicable reasons, Federal Magistrate Judge Mark Carman only fined these men $1,666 each and mandated no jail time. This for killing a magnificent lion that belonged to all Americans in a national park where wildlife is strictly protected. 

The 340 page investigation paints a clear picture of boys out to kill, with the added thrill of murder in a National Park. They had scouted for the lion the previous night, treed it with dogs, shot it with handguns, and posed for pictures embracing the dead cat as if it were a prom date. 

How did they get off with a slap on the wrist? We may never know because, astonishingly, the court says no transcript exists of the hearing. 

What we do know is that the men were caught and confessed. Fading media interest does not negate the fact that we have been doubly robbed: by the lion’s death and by negligent sentencing that is, in essence, a green light for poaching in Yellowstone -- or any other National Park. 

The public harm in the “trespass” incident is more complicated, in part because of the complex private checkerboard landownership in the Crazies. The involved trail connecting the old Porcupine and Ibex Ranger Stations crosses private inholdings. The Forest Service has marked the trail as a public access route on maps for roughly a hundred years, in keeping with a long-standing legal easement. 

But starting about 15 years ago, here and elsewhere in the Crazies, landowners have blocked off public access to this trail, variously using locked gates, barbed wire, and “No Trespassing” signs, according to Forest Service documents. Forest Service trail signs have been destroyed as well. Most of these actions would almost certainly have been considered criminal if any of the rest of us had done them. But, again, for inexplicable reasons these landowners have gotten away with it —with demonstrable damage to our public rights. 

In a 2013 letter that presaged what happened next, District Ranger Alex Sienkiewicz wrote to one landowner, “when government signage, boundary markers, and blazes are destroyed, you are inviting the very trespass that you and your colleagues are blaming on the Forest Service.”  

Last October, when the men attempted to navigate the trail on a Forest Service map, they were tracked down by a man who co-manages a hunting club that leases the land. Park County issued them criminal trespass citations. 

The Department of Justice, which is supposed to protect the public interest, kept Forest Service officials from testifying at the hearing, which prevented the jury from hearing critical background about the dispute. 

The men are hardly the only ones who think that public access to trails in the Crazies is an important issue. Recently, Friends of the Crazy Mountains, Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife Habitat, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and Skyline Sportsmen sued the Forest Service over its chronic failure to protect public access to public trails. 

The fact that the Forest Service has worked with citizens to reroute the disputed Porcupine-Ibex trail does not resolve the broader problem of landowners closing off access in the Crazies. Nor does it remedy the fact that the men were deprived of the respect and due process they deserve.   

In the end, both cases represent a perversion of justice. In the one, local boys who unambiguously committed a crime essentially got away with it. In the other, landowners intent on depriving the public of legal access prevailed yet again. They remind us that destruction of our public lands and wildlife can happen in many ways. But if future generations are to enjoy the natural legacy we now share, silence is not an option. 

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Louisa Willcox has worked to preserve the wildlands and wildlife of the Northern Rockies for the past 40 years. She lives in Livingston.

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