Going Crazy in the Crazies

Unfortunately, the Crazies are in the headlines for the wrong reason: access

The Crazy Mountains are unique, at least as far as mountains in western Montana go. Most of the ranges in the western part of the state are branches of the Rocky Mountains, the great continental spine that divides the state.

While there are access conflicts here and there, the public lands of these state-spanning ranges are mostly accessible.

The Crazies are different. The mountains are isolated from the nearby Absaroka and Bridger ranges. Such mountains are called island ranges, or more evocatively in the Southwest, Sky Islands, owing to their nature as high-elevation environments surrounded by seas of low-elevation prairie or desert.

The range is volcanic in origin, though there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of volcanoes in the Crazies. Instead, cooling magma created a vast chunk of hard igneous rock just beneath the surface of softer sediment. Over time, erosion and ice sheets exposed the rock, and wind and water sculpted it into the jagged mountain range we see today.

I know the Crazies, but only from I-90. They loom over the landscape in the country between Billings and Livingston. The mountains are impressive, but I’ve never been drawn in for a closer look. It’s not necessarily my kind of country. Most of it is near vertical, up or down depending on your direction of travel. The Crazies are most noteworthy for being one of the largest exposed expanses of igneous rock in the world.

Unfortunately, the Crazies are in the headlines for the wrong reason: access.

Like Mitchell Slough on the Bitterroot River or the Ruby River near Twin Bridges, the fight to preserve the rights of citizens to use their property keeps popping up in these unlikely places.

The case of the Crazies hinges on the same issue that was at the center of the fight on the Ruby: prescriptive easements. As mentioned, the Crazies are a sky island of public land ringed by private. There are only a few deeded access points, and the rugged terrain of the land makes it difficult to cover country once you make it inside the ring of private property. Multiple access points are needed to reach much of the range.

For years folks accessed the Crazies through trails on private land that have been used and identified on Forest Service maps for decades. And that continual use, unimpeded by previous landowners, created prescriptive easements that allowed access to a wider area in the Crazies.

That was all well and good until recently, when the “No Trespassing” signs started going up and the Crazies were increasingly closed off to all but those whose property backed up against public land.

In the last few years, Forest Service District Ranger Alex Sienkiewicz has been working on behalf of the public, trying to settle the issue of the prescriptive easements and access to the Crazies. It now appears some of those landowners complained to Sen. Steve Daines and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, and Sienkiewicz was soon reassigned to office work in Bozeman. An investigation has been launched into the district ranger’s role in the access dispute.

I’m sorry if I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but sadly the story just keeps repeating itself. The trail (or river) is public, but the “No Trespassing” signs go up anyway. Costly legal battles ensue, and if the public can scrape together enough cash to pay their attorneys, and if they’ve got a couple retired folks with nothing better to do than spend days or weeks pouring through records in county courthouses, access often wins. But the process takes years, and in the meantime the public remains locked out.

You have to wonder when Montana’s elected representatives in Helena and Washington, D.C. will make common citizens — rather than their largest campaign donors — their priority.

Don’t hold your breath.