By Tyler Allen Explorebigsky.com Staff Writer
The original version of this story, printed in the March 22 issue of the Big Sky Weekly, incorrectly stated that Big Sky Community Corporation Director Jessie Wiese is in favor of the Forest Service proposal. The BSCC has remained neutral during the process.
BIG SKY – More than 40 community members packed the small conference room at First Security Bank on March 14 to attend an open house hosted by the U.S. Forest Service Bozeman Ranger District concerning the future of public access in the North Fork drainage.
The conference table and walls were covered by giant maps depicting the Forest’s proposal to exchange easements with private landowners to allow for construction of a new 6.8-mile trail adjacent to Forest Road 166B. The project would also entail a relocation of 166B to bypass a private residence.
FR 166B is currently open to the public for motorized use in the summer. The proposed easement agreement would close that access in favor of a trail dedicated to non-motorized use, allowing only landowner and Forest Service vehicles on the road.
The Forest Service sent a letter, dated Feb. 26, to Big Sky residents outlining the proposal, asking for public comment and announcing the open house. The turnout was larger than expected, said Lisa Stoeffler, USFS District Ranger in Bozeman.
“I think it’s a good proposal,” said Rumsey Young of Big Sky Hikers, who attended the meeting. “It takes into account the practicality of how the land gets used … hiking, biking and skiing. Forest Service land should be used by the public, and I don’t really care about limiting motorized use.”
Maria and Ambrose Locker live on the west loop of 166B, which is lower down on the road. They’re concerned the easement exchange would cut off their access to Forest land above their property. “We’re at the mercy of everyone else,” Maria said. “If the easement’s gone, they could gate the road.”
Stoeffler says landowners would need to establish a road association to replace the Forest Service easement on 166B to allow landowners lower on the road, like the Lockers, to have continued access. The Forest Service would continue to have administrative access on the road under the agreement.
The most common concern at the open house, though, was the future of ski trails.
“There has been a lot of interest in connection with the Lone Mountain Ranch trails,” Stoeffler said. “People want to make sure [the trail system] remains whole.”
Long time Big Sky resident Eric Ossorio lives in the area and accesses his house via the east loop of FR 166B, below where the new trailhead would be. He would like the Forest Service to extend the comment period, giving the public an opportunity to walk the property in question after the snow melts and decide if it’s a desirable trade.
“The [Lone Mountain Ranch] trail system needs to be a discussion that the community should have,” he said after the meeting.
“A lot of the easements are [currently] for the ranch, not the public,” said Jessie Wiese, director of the Big Sky Community Corp., which supports parks, trails and recreation in Big Sky. She added that a ski pass is required to use the trails. “This easement would be written to the public.” Wiese said she thinks the public has had ample time to learn about the proposal.
Although the new trail would be closed to motorized use during the summer, LMR would be allowed to groom it for winter Nordic skiing. Wiese encouraged people to contact BSCC with questions about the proposal.
“I think it’s a net gain for the ranch,” said Denise Wade, LMR Nordic and Trails Director, of the proposed trade. “It’s really the big hole this is filling [in the LMR trail system].”
LMR is also negotiating an easement on another piece of its trail system higher in the drainage to ensure continued ski access. Currently, the ranch has a license to use part of the Summit Trail, and a verbal agreement with a landowner for the other section of that trail in exchange for the easement LMR holds on 166B, Wade said.
These types of cooperative processes between the public and private landowners could set the stage for future landowners granting access through their private property, Wade added.
But the work is not over yet.
“Lands work is onerous,” said Stoeffler of the Forest Service. “There’s a lot of work ahead of us and we need to get a basic agreement first.”
Feedback on the proposal can be submitted in writing until March 29 to 3710 Fallon St. Suite C, Bozeman, MT 59718 or electronically to firstname.lastname@example.org (include “FR166B comments” in the subject line).