Montanans should not be criticized for trying

Wednesday, August 7, 2019


I have always enjoyed reading Joseph Bullington’s stories in the Enterprise, and I was sad to see his time at The Enterprise come to an end. However, his column from last Friday unnecessarily attacked Erica Lighthiser, and by extension the members of the Crazy Mountain Working Group, for attempting to resolve a legal dispute over the status of Trail 267 on the west side of the Crazies.  

Like many readers, I know Erica Lighthiser well. She is a dedicated member of our community that volunteers hundreds of hours each year coaching soccer, working on trail projects, and serving as a Commissioner for Montana’s State Parks and Recreation Board, all while raising three wonderful children with her husband Mark. She is not dishonest, and she does not deserve to be attacked for working to resolve disputes between neighbors through cooperation rather than litigation.  

I spent the last twelve years on Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission. During that time, the Commission successfully, and unsuccessfully, worked on contentious disputes between landowners and recreationalists throughout the state. The Crazy Mountains have disputes that have simmered for years and, while some of the disputes will probably only be resolved by litigation, other disputes can and should be resolved through conversation.  

In my opinion, the dispute over Trail 267 is a dispute that can be resolved through collaboration. Although written easements do not exist for certain portions of Trail 267, it has been depicted on Forest Service maps since the early 20th Century. Despite the lack of written easement on some sections, the Forest Service, correctly in my opinion, asserted public access over Trail 267 due to decades of public use. As is their right, the landowners disagreed and asserted that no easement existed for Trail 267.  

In 2017, after a collaborative process, an agreement was reached between the Forest Service and the landowners disputing the public interest in the historic route of Trail 267. It is not perfect, but I believe it is significantly better than having Trail 267 rendered inaccessible due to a legal dispute.  

Several groups objected to the terms of the Agreement. As is their right, they sued to prevent the Forest Service from building the new Trail 267, asking for an injunction to prevent construction until the legality of the public interest in the old Trail 267 could be adjudicated. The judge denied the injunction, and it appears that Trail 267 will be re-located, and the public will have deeded access to Trail 267.  

I am a firm believer that public access to public lands is a right. Similarly, I am a firm believer in private property rights. Sometimes, these two rights come in conflict. When they do, they can be resolved through cooperation or litigation. There are places for both. But, when we can resolve disputes through conversation and collaboration we should. It is how we can greet our neighbors at the gas station with a smile instead of a scowl, and, given the level of conflict in today’s world, shouldn’t we show that Montanans still try to resolve disputes amicably? We won’t always succeed, and, when we don’t, the courts are there to decide. But, Montanans should not be criticized for trying.  

Dan Vermillion