by Brett French, Billings Gazette
A Livingston-based district ranger for the Custer Gallatin National Forest will be reinstated on Oct. 23 following an internal review of his conduct in a hotly disputed public access case in the Crazy Mountains.
Alex Sienkiewicz was removed from his job on June 16 and reassigned to the forest’s work on a proposed mineral withdrawal in the Paradise Valley. Even after his reinstatement he will continue to work on the mineral withdrawal, said Teri Seth, acting public information officer for the forest.
Sienkiewicz, who has been a vocal advocate for maintaining and securing public access to public lands, was cleared by a human resources review, Seth said. The review was related to his conduct concerning Trail 115, a historical route that accesses the east side of the Crazy Mountains by first crossing private property — the Hailstone Ranch owned by Lee Langhus. In the past Langhus has said, through his attorney, that the trail does not provide a legal public easement across his ranch.
Several landowners contacted for this story, including Langhus, did not return calls by press time. But in letters to the editor some have accused the Forest Service of bullying and intimidating landowners and threatening their private property rights.
In June, Mary Erickson, forest supervisor, said Sienkiewicz’s reassignment was made to “create some separation between Alex as district ranger and allegations raised concerning access issues in the Crazies.”
Seth said the review focused on “whether that issue was handled in accordance with law, policy and regulation — and it was.” In such cases, Seth said an investigator from the Forest Service’s Albuquerque office is assigned to the case and reports their findings to a line officer.
Kathryn QannaYahu, a public access advocate now based in Helena, announced Sienkiewicz’s reinstatement in an email and on her website. She has been a vocal critic of the Forest Service’s stance on the issue and filed several Freedom of Information Act requests to dig into the subject of public access in the Crazy Mountains.
QannaYahu said she’s glad Sienkiewicz will be reinstated and that many people spoke out in support of him. But she said the allegations that led to the review should be revealed. She believes they were made based on false information — specifically that a Facebook posting on a public lands access group’s site was made by Sienkiewicz.