by Don Thomas, Montana Standard
When Alex Sienkiewicz and his wife Holly arrived in Livingston in 2011, they felt enthusiastic about raising their children in a small Montana town. After years of higher education, Sienkiewicz also felt excited about assuming his duties as District Ranger in the Forest Service and getting out into the field where he’d always longed to be. Then on June 16, 2016, Regional Forest Service Supervisor Mary Erickson informed him that he was being reassigned, and that he faced an internal misconduct investigation. The reason? He’d been doing his job.
Conflicts over public access to Gallatin National Forest land in the Crazy Mountains had been simmering for years. The FS had built, maintained, and utilized trails there for decades, and documents dating back to 1930 and beyond established that they were public. Erickson herself expressed that position in a 2015 letter to Sen. Steve Daines: “The Forest Service maintains that it owns unperfected prescriptive rights on this trail system.” Alerted by complaints about blocked trails and no-trespassing signs from outdoor recreationists, Sienkiewicz began to take this policy seriously.
A handful of ranchers whose land some of these trails crossed objected, as they had been doing for years. With their ire focused on Sienkiewicz, they did what influential Americans have always done and took their complaints to Washington. Highly critical letters went out to Sen. Daines and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue just prior to Sienkiewicz’s reassignment. There was no question about the reason for that reassignment, about which Supervisor Erickson commented: “…it relates to on-going issues around access in the Crazy Mountains and allegations from landowners about how Alex has navigated some of these disputes.”