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Big Sky Trail Easement Swap Seeks More Public Comments

The Gallatin National Forest is extending the period for public comment about an exchange of rights to roads and trails that the Forest Service currently holds after an initial public meeting received a huge crowd. The proposal is part of an effort that would build a 6.8 mile loop trail that would leave from the same trailhead as the North Fork Trail but would loop back to National Forest Trail #403 and also be open year-round, providing a new and longer loop for hikers, bikers, and cross-country skiers come winter while closing vehicular access to a loop road that currently cuts by the property of Texas lobbyist Stan Schlueter.

Like many good ol' Western open land debates, there's a monied gentleman from the South involved. Former Texas state legislator cum lobbyist Stan Schlueter, whose clients include everyone from AT&T to Delta to Koch Industries and who has a road named after him in the city of Killeen (also one of his clients), bought 497 acres off Highway 64 in 2001 and built an 8,000 square foot mansion. The Gallatin National Forest then contended that his new vacation home encroached on a 60-foot easement they held in perpetuity that accessed a nearby forest. A 10-year back and forth then ensued that involved the Forest Service, conservation groups, lawyers, and politicians in Texas and Montana.

After all that, things are getting close to an amicable conclusion. A mile and a half of new trail would be built to close the nearly 7-mile loop, and as part of the deal, much of the loop road 166B (see map above) would be closed to vehicular traffic. While Schlueter is the big fish in the pond of this story, ultimately nine landowners would grant public easements through their property for the new trail and would also endow a fund that would pay for trail construction and maintenance.

The public comment period has been extended to April 12th. Those who want to voice their opinion can send an e-mail to FS-comments-northern-gallatin@fs.fed.us, or get at the National Forest the old fashioned way by going to the public meeting tonight at 4:30 pm at the Buck Ridge Room at Bucks T4 in Big Sky.

· Voice your opinion April 4 [Lone Peak Lookout]
· Forest Service proposes new trail to settle encroachment dispute [Billings Gazette]