by Bozeman Daily Chronicle Editorial Staff
There was a time when federal public land managers were apolitical, appointed solely on their professional credentials and tasked with managing those lands for the benefit of the people. But as the demands on public lands have increased, special interests — recreationists, agriculture advocates and extractive industries — prevailed upon successive administrations to appoint more ideological agency heads in Washington, those who favor certain factions in the public-lands debate.
Now it looks suspiciously like that influence may be reaching all the way down to the local level.
Public access groups are crying foul over the reassignment of Alex Sienkiewicz, the Yellowstone District ranger for the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. Sienkiewicz, who was known to have butted heads with landowners in the Crazy Mountains over historical public access points, was reassigned to lead a team analyzing mining potential in the Absaroka Mountains. And he is also the subject of an internal agency review.
Forest Service officials are reticent about the details of his reassignment but acknowledge that access issues were raised by landowners with Sonny Perdue, appointed by Donald Trump to head up the Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forest Service.
And Sienkiewicz’s situation may not be an isolated case.
A spokesperson for the National Federation of Federal Employees Forest Service Council recently told the Chronicle that agency workers all over the country are feeling pressure from Washington. And administration officials have made it clear they favor managing the land for extractive industries and the privileged few rather than the public in general.
This does not bode well for outdoor recreationists of all stripes.
Access is emerging as the paramount public lands issue of the 21st century. In areas like Eastern Montana, where tracts of public land are surrounded by private land, landowners are throwing up gates across roads and trails long used by the public for access. We need land managers who are willing to contest these actions in the strongest terms. But the ideological shift in Washington seems to be moving in the opposite direction.
Regardless of political affiliation, everyone who values access to public land should be united in this cause and vote accordingly. This includes hunters, anglers, hikers, birdwatchers, mountain bikers ATV riders and snowmobilers. And our congressional delegation is likewise strongly urged to use their influence to maintain traditional public access.
Because once we have surrendered these critical public access points, it will be unlikely we will ever be able to restore them.