A coalition of ranchers, the Crow Nation, outdoor enthusiasts and conservation groups are seeking public input on a proposed Montana land swap on the east side of the Crazy Mountains area in the Rocky Mountains.
Over a month’s time, they will be holding open houses and welcoming public comments on the Crazy Mountain Access Project portal at www.emwh.org.
“We urge your support for a well-thought-out proposal in an area that has been contentious for decades and believe this proposal represents a rare and unique opportunity to benefit public land users, wildlife, and private landowners,” said Crazy Mountain Stockgrowers in a press release.
The agreement would consolidate public lands and create new public access opportunities on the eastern side of the Crazy Mountains and in the Madison Range near Big Sky, MT.
Under the agreement, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) would acquire 5,205 acres of private inholdings in the Custer Gallatin National Forest’s eastern border, resulting in approximately 30 square miles of contiguous public land between Big Timber Creek and Sweet Grass Creek.
In exchange, landowners would acquire 3,614 acres of National Forest “checkerboard” land on the exterior of the range that is already interspersed with private ranchlands, ranch roads and provide access to Sweet Grass Creek.
“The East Crazy Land Exchange Proposal is a win for private property rights as well as the rights of the citizens to access public lands. This proposal has been a collaborative effort that will solve a lot of the current, well-publicized issues in the Crazy Mountain,” said Sweet Grass County Commission in a press release.
With the land swap, the public will then have access to about 30 miles of continuous trail leading from Sweet Grass Creek to Big Timber Creek. A new 22-mile trail would run between the two creeks, resolving access disputes over trail number 136. The new trail would connect two other trails along the interior of the range to form a 40-mile loop trail.
The Yellowstone Group, a 15,200-acre private residential community in Big Sky, will pay for the construction of the 22-mile trail in the proposed area in return for their own land swap.
The Yellowstone Club would acquire approximately 500 acres of high-elevation expert ski terrain adjacent to existing Yellowstone Club ski lifts in the Madison Range. According to a press release, the parcels acquired by Yellowstone Club would be restricted by a “conservation easement to ski uses only including avalanche control, with no subdivision, residential or non-ski development permitted.”
“The proposal is a remarkable example of local people working together towards a common goal, demonstrating that we can resolve very complex land management challenges,” said the Park County Environmental Council (PCEC). “PCEC applauds the efforts of the participating landowners to seek input and perspective from many different organizations and individuals throughout the process of preparing the draft proposal. Many people care deeply about the future of the Crazy Mountains, and by learning from diverse perspectives we will make better decisions that benefit the landscape and future generations of people.”
The proposal would also give the Crow Tribe access to Crazy Peak which the tribe regards as sacred.
“The Asaalooke Nation urges you to move forward with this proposal to benefit not only citizens of the local area, but to [Montana] and its visitors and users of our public lands,” said the Crow Tribe Executive Council in the press release.
Public access to the Crazy Mountains has been a clash between private landowners and the public for several years. While the USFS shows a trailhead and a trail leading up to Sweet Grass Creek, access has been limited by the Carroccia Ranch Limited Partnership, which operates the Sweet Grass Ranch.
After years of negotiations, USFS began to construct its own trails on the west side of the Crazy Mountain. A lawsuit was filed by the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) in Helena in June 2019, which asserted the agency had failed to “properly manage and protect public access rights on two westside trails, as well as two additional trails on the east side of the Crazy Mountains.”
The trails are Lowline Porcupine Trail (No. 267); Elk Creek Trail (No. 195); Sweetgrass Trail (No. 122); and East Trunk Trail (No. 136, formerly No. 115).
The lawsuit contended that the four trails are available for public access per the visitor map and that the trails were “discussed, analyzed, and vetted with the public during [the] preparation of the 1986 Gallatin National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan and, more recently, during [the] preparation of the 2006 Gallatin Travel Management Plan.”
It also stated that local landowners have obstructed access and the use of the four trails. In the complaint filed, WELC states the public is met with “no trespassing” signs, “locked gates and barbed wire” and trail signs are “often covered up, torn down, damaged and/or removed.”
In August 2019, an agreement was reached between landowners and Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest which would provide nonmotorized access to Big Elk Creek in exchange for reciprocal access to the landowner’s forest inholdings.
The Crazy Mountain Access Project will hold open houses at the following locations:
• Big Timber: July 23, American Legion, 6-8 p.m.;
• Bozeman: July 30, Masonic Lodge, 6-8 p.m.; and
• Big Sky: Aug. 6, Wilson Hotel, 6-8 p.m.
In addition to the open houses, the public can provide feedback via the groups’ comment portal through Aug. 7. According to the group, an updated proposal will be submitted to the Custer-Gallatin National Forest and Montana’s congressional delegation for review later this summer. — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor