Proposed land exchange to improve public access submitted to Custer-Gallatin National Forest
Includes new provisions to permanently conserve more private lands
BIG TIMBER - A coalition of landowners and public land users have asked for a federal process to analyze a land exchange intended to improve management and public access in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest.
The East Crazy Mountains and Inspiration Divide Land Exchange would consolidate public lands on the eastern side of the Crazy Mountains and in the Madison Range near Big Sky, Montana. The proposal would open public access for thirty square miles of currently inaccessible lands on the eastern edge of the Crazy Mountains by rerouting and improving a long-contested trail.
The original proposal was shared with the public for comment last summer by the Crazy Mountain Access Project. The coalition submitted an updated proposal to the National Forest Service earlier this month that includes additional provisions to limit residential developments on several land parcels located in the Crazy Mountains.
According to members of the Crazy Mountain Access Project, the proposal is now far enough along to initiate a public process overseen by the Custer Gallatin National Forest Service.
“We are now at a stage where the Forest Service can begin a thoughtful analysis of the public benefits associated with this proposal,” said Lorents Grosfield, a rancher in Sweet Grass County and member of the Crazy Mountain Access Project. “Resolving complicated public land access issues that have been simmering for decades takes community partnerships, patience, and thoughtful public discussions which the Forest Service can help facilitate.”
New Private Land Protections Sought
A significant change from the original proposal is a request for the Forest Service to analyze the possibility of voluntary land protections for several sections of land in the Crazy Mountains.
That includes Sections 8 and 10 in Sweet Grass Creek which would be conveyed to a private landowner as part of the exchange. Private land protection is also proposed for Section 7, covering Crazy Peak, the tallest mountain in the Crazy Mountains and of special significance to the Crow Nation.
“The Crazy Mountains are a deeply special place for many reasons, and they deserve acknowledgment and protection," said Shane Doyle, a historian an member of the Crow Tribe. "The oldest known burial in the Western Hemisphere is located in their shadow, and the oldest bison migrations on the continent occurred along and through the valleys on their the east and western flanks. Since time immemorial people have fasted and prayed in Crazy Mountains, and this tradition continues today. This recognition of the significance of Crazy Peak as a ceremonial site is a meaningful step.”
According to Erica Lighthiser, of the Park County Environmental Council, new voluntary protections to limit development on private lands in the Crazy Mountains are being investigated based on feedback heard at public meetings hosted last summer.
“We received a lot of helpful feedback from the public that we took into consideration in the revised version of the proposal. Thanks to the input, the landowners are considering additional measures to protect wildlife and habitat. Nearly everyone requested we submit the proposal to the Forest Service for thorough analysis and review -- and there will be more opportunities for public input and engagement in the future. We’re excited for the next phase,” said Lighthiser.
The proposed private land protections in the Crazy Mountains are currently being negotiated and would be contingent on the land exchange advancing. The revised proposal also contains conservation easements for several sections of land that would be exchanged with the Yellowstone Club near Big Sky Basin that are intended to restrict future development to ski use and avalanche control only.
Other key provision intact:
Other key provisions of the land exchange agreement remain unchanged including the consolidation of public lands by conveying 4,114 acres of U.S forest lands to private landowners and conveying 5,763 acres to the Forest Service on the eastern side of the Crazy Mountains and near Big Sky, Montana.
“There are so many private inholdings in the backcountry of the Crazy Mountains. Considering the growth happening in our area, this land swap is critical” said Rob Gregoire, a public lands hunter and member of CMAP. “We need to block up public lands or the private checkerboard land is at risk of being developed or becoming an exclusive playground for a select few.”
The proposal would also construct a new 22-mile trail in the Crazy Mountains, at no taxpayer expense, to resolve a long-simmering dispute over the legality and location of trail #136. The newly constructed trail would unlock 30-square miles for public access on mid-elevation roadless lands in Amelong Creek, Dry Creek, Otter Creek, and Sweet Grass Creek.
The new trail will also create a 40-mile loop trail system that would allow backcountry enthusiasts the ability to loop a large portion of the range from one access point. It would connect the newly aligned Trail 136 at Half Moon Campground to the existing Trail 122 in Sweet Grass Canyon to Trail 119 in Big Timber Canyon.
“The new trail remains a critically important piece of this land exchange because the public currently has such limited access to the east side of the Crazies,” said John Salazar, who regularly hunts the Crazy Mountains. “I think hunters and wildlife lovers will appreciate having a clear and certain route to thousands of acres of consolidated public land.”
The full list of land exchange provisions the Forest Service is being asked to analyze can be found below:
East Crazy Mountains
The acquisition by the Forest Service of 5,205 acres of private “checkerboard” inholdings resulting in approximately 30 square miles of contiguous public land between Big Timber Creek and Sweet Grass Creek.
The acquisition by landowners of 3,614 acres of National Forest “checkerboard’ land on the exterior of the range that are interspersed with private ranchlands and ranch roads.
The construction of 22-miles of new trail connecting Half Moon campground in Big Timber Creek on the south end to Sweet Grass Creek at the north end intended to re-route contested trail #136.
The permanent protection of section 7, covering Crazy Peak, through a voluntary landowner conservation tool such as a conservation easement.
The permanent protection of sections 8 and 10 in Sweet Grass Creek, through a voluntary landowner conservation tool such as a conservation easement.
The legal access agreement for members of the Crow Nation to access Crazy Peak.
The acquisition by the Forest Service of 558 acres of mid-elevation land along Inspiration Divide Trail #8 and new access opportunities for public lands east of Cedar Mountain and provide an additional buffer for critical public habitat through the Yellowstone Corridor.
The acquisition by the Yellowstone Club of 500 acres of high-elevation expert ski terrain adjacent to existing Yellowstone Club ski lifts.
A conservation easement restriction of parcels acquired by Yellowstone Club to ski uses only including avalanche control, with no subdivision, residential or non-ski development permitted.
Members of the Crazy Mountain Access Project say they hope the proposed land exchange can build on several recent successes overseen by the Forest Service that have gradually begun to resolve some of the most vexing public access debates in Montana’s Crazy Mountains.
“This exchange is the next major step in settling the access conflicts in the Crazy Mountains,” said Dale Sexton, a local business owner and member of the Crazy Mountain Access Project. “The Porcupine Ibex trail reroute on the west side will be complete this summer. The South Crazy Mountains land exchange was finalized and consolidated some checkerboard too. Now the Forest Service can evaluate this land exchange and trail reroute on the east side. Bit by bit, we are working our way around the range and making progress. The results are on the ground.”