Construction of controversial forest trail is underway

Construction of a controversial forest trail on the west side of the Crazy Mountains in Montana is expected to be underway this week after a federal judge declined to halt the work.

The Billings Gazzette reports that five conservation groups had banded together to seek a temporary injunction to halt building of the Porcupine Ibex Trail, contending that the Custer Gallatin National Forest had: violated and continues to violate the law; has no authority to relinquish the public’s access rights and easement interests on the Porcupine Lowline trail and on portions of the Elk Creek trail; to set aside the agency’s decision to approve the west-side trail project and remand the matter back to the Forest Service with instructions to comply with environmental laws; and direct the agency to comply with the travel rule, travel plan, forest plan, and its own direction and policy.

On July 29, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Watters issued an order in the Forest Service’s favor, allowing the agency to proceed with the project. Construction had been scheduled to start in July.

Although the groups showed the trail would cause irreparable harm, “they did not raise serious questions going to the merits,” Watters wrote in her ruling. The ability of the public to access the new trail once it’s built, whereas the old route is blocked by a gate and no trespassing signs, leans the balance heavily in favor of the Forest Service, she added.

“In a sense, the (groups) are attempting to trade uncertain property rights for secure property rights, whereas the (Forest Service is) attempting to preserve uncertain property rights at (the) risk of losing secure property rights,” Watters wrote.

The trail, located north of Livingston, on the Yellowstone Ranger District, will require 2.7 miles of new trail construction to connect the Porcupine Cabin Trailhead to the North Fork Elk Creek Trail No. 195 and to secure long-term public access to the area, the Forest Service said in a press release. Construction will likely take six to eight weeks to complete.

Opponents to the Forest Service’s decision-making process included the Montana Chapter of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Chapter president John Sullivan, of Missoula, said his group still questions the Forest Service’s protocol in reaching its decision despite the judge’s ruling, but recognized that an injunction to halt the work is difficult to obtain.

“From our perspective we’re happy to see new access created,” he said. “I think we were fighting for a gold standard. It’s better than a road closed and no access.”