After a one-year absence, the sign for Hyalite Canyon in Custer Gallatin National Forest has been restored — thanks to a determined local with a love for the land and a set of power tools.
Liz Johnson, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, just north of the federal land, noticed last year that the sign to Hyalite Canyon was missing. While she can’t confirm that the sign was stolen, she has a strong suspicion that it was taken.
“Gallatin National Forest, and Hyalite, specifically, is so beloved by everyone I know,” Johnson told CNN. “It is so close to town and offers so many different activities for all sorts of people. That is also probably why the sign was stolen — because it is loved so much!”
Hyalite receives more than 20,000 visitors a month in the winter and more than 40,000 visitors a month in the summer, the US Forest Service said.
As a proponent of do-it-yourself and maker culture — a culture fueled by people who like to design and work on projects of their own, from 3D printing to woodworking — Johnson said she had to take matters into her own hands.
She was inspired by a documentary that she watched on Richard Ankrom, who secretly (and without government approval) improved signage on a California freeway.
Johnson describes herself as a “jack-of-all trades type of hobbyist” who has made items of all sizes.
“I’ve inherited some power tools and skills from my dad, but what I think I really inherited was the curiosity and determination to try new projects and jump right into things,” Johnson said.
“Whenever I have wanted to try and make something, I’ve never heard a ‘what if,’ ‘what about this’ or ‘maybe not’ from my parents, but instead a ‘good luck’ and ‘here’s some ideas to get you started.’”
Johnson said she had thought about the project all year but kept putting it off. However, she was motivated to have the sign ready in time for when Hyalite Canyon opened up again so people could see it on opening day.
The road to Hyalite Canyon is closed every year for a few weeks in April and May to allow the road subgrade to thaw. A local non-profit called Friends of Hyalite also holds a “cleanup day” during this closure to help do road maintenance in order to support the conservation of Hyalite.
“I thought the Forest Service must have had more important things to do than replace a sign that probably keeps getting stolen, or perhaps they didn’t even notice,” Johnson said. “Either way, I thought it was a problem I could solve myself. I didn’t let them know partially because I thought they would say no, but also because I wanted to be a little rebellious. To do something I’m not supposed to, even though it’s probably fine anyway and only brings good. It’s easy to steal a sign, it’s much harder to replace it.”
There are federal regulations laid out by the US Forest Service for signage, and Johnson said she made sure to follow them while making the sign. She found the hex codes for the color, a closely matching font, the wood type (MDO plywood), size and shape.
She said she wanted it to be “indistinguishable from the real deal,” and she hoped it would have a better chance of remaining up if she followed the regulations as closely as possible if the Forest Service discovered what she did.
Johnson poured hours into planning, researching, laying out the words and buying all the materials. However, once she broke out the power tools, it took her one “very intensive” week from start to finish to complete her work.
Now, the sign welcomes all visitors to Hyalite Canyon, and even Bozeman Mayor Chris Mehl approves of her work.
“Thank you Liz!,” Mehl wrote in a tweet. “Great stepping up to get things done. I’ll think of your community spirit every time I see that sign for years to come.”
The Forest Service said it appreciated the gift, but next time, give them a call.
“We would prefer people coordinate with us before embarking on a project like that because she obviously put a lot of effort into it, but we certainly appreciate people wanting to help and wanting to contribute,” Wendi Urie, the recreation program manager for the Forest Service’s Bozeman Ranger District, told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
CNN attempted to reach the Forest Service for further comment.
The road to Hyalite Canyon was reopened May 16.