A coalition of ranchers and public land users who live near Montana’s Crazy Mountains are praising the Forest Service for commencing formal analysis of the citizen-proposed land exchange in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest.
The East Crazy Inspiration Divide Land Exchange would consolidate and unlock public access to thirty square miles of public lands on the eastern side of the Crazy Mountains as well as consolidate public lands near Inspiration Divide in the Madison Range near Big Sky, Montana.
The proposal was submitted to the Forest Service in 2021 after being negotiated for two years by local landowners and a diverse group of public land users. Today marks the beginning of a 45-day comment period on the draft proposal, which formally kick-starts a Forest Service process to determine whether or not they will advance the land exchange.
“Today is a very positive step forward for the local people who came together to find a lasting and durable solution that respects property rights and greatly improves public access in the Crazy Mountains. I have been inspired by the amount of time everyone has put into it,” said John Salazar, Montana Wildlife Federation Board of Directors “We want to thank the Forest Service for this forward progress and taking the next step in the administrative process. The opportunity for the public to be involved in the process is vital, so I encourage folks to review the proposal for themselves. The Montana Wildlife Federation will continue to advocate through the public process to strengthen the proposal.”
“As a fifth generation rancher our family has come to truly respect and love these mountains. The East Crazy Mountains Land Exchange is a positive path forward to solving the access issues that have plagued this region for decades. It is the end result of many years of collaborative, grassroots efforts between the Forest Service, land owners, recreational and conservation communities. The dialogue and trust that has been created between these entities throughout this process has been invaluable and sets a wonderful example for future projects.” - Nathan Anderson, 5th Generation Montanan, Melville
“While there are a variety of perspectives when it comes to the land use debates in the Crazy Mountains, the East Crazy Mountains Land Exchange is a good example of a local compromise that benefits all. I have seen first hand the benefits of diverse people groups coming together to make compromises that benefit our community as a whole. Without such compromises, unique ranges such as the Crazies, will remain in limbo for generations to come. Working together and creating solutions to complex problems is what this is all about. “ - Megan Dehann, Rancher and Director of the Crazy Mountain 100 Ultramarathon
Improved Deal for the Public and Conservation
The Forest Service proposal released today has a major improvement over the original citizen-developed proposal. A 640 acre parcel containing Smeller Lake is now included in the exchange, converting an additional private inholding in the interior of the Crazy Mountain Range to public land.
“The checkerboard pattern of alternating private and public lands makes the Crazy Mountains a vulnerable landscape to development in our growing corner of southwest Montana, so consolidating checkerboard public land is imperative to achieving long term conservation. The improved public land consolidation in this land exchange will not only clarify where the public has legal access, but will allow the U.S. Forest Service to better protect and steward the wildlife habitat and important cultural sites in the Crazy Mountains,” said Erica Lighthiser, Deputy Director of the Park County Environmental Council.
All told, the Forest Service would acquire 5,825 acres of private ‘checkerboard’ inholdings in Montana’s Crazy Mountains in exchange for 3,635 acres on the exterior of the range. That would create a 30-square mile contiguous block of public land, increasing the overall roadless area to 10,640 acres. Landowners in Sweet Grass and Crazy Peak have agreed to permanently protect additional private land containing some wetlands and other important cultural sites with deed restrictions and conservation easements.
A new 22-mile trail in the Crazy Mountains would be constructed to resolve a long-simmering dispute over the legality and location of trails #136 and #122 and create the missing link to establish a 40-mile loop trail circuit in the Crazy Mountains. The proposed trail would cross several miles of newly consolidated public lands and facilitate access to 6.2 miles of fish-bearing perennial creeks including Amelong Creek, Dry Creek, Otter Creek, Roaring Creek, Bruin Creek and Sweet Grass Creek, an area where access is currently severely limited.
A companion proposal in the Big Sky area would also provide 605 acres of mid-elevation lands along Inspiration Divide Trail #8 for public use in exchange for 500 acres of steep and rocky high-elevation expert ski terrain adjacent to the Yellowstone Club. A conservation easement will be placed over the 500 acres.
The Crazy Mountains are a significant cultural landscape to many Indigenous peoples and were recently designated as an “area of tribal importance” in the Forest Plan in recognition of the vision quests, plant gatherings and other ceremonies practiced in the mountain range. An extra provision of the land exchange would permanently protect Crazy Peak, an important vision quest site, with conservation easements and allow access for the continuation of cultural practices.
“Indigenous nations and peoples are connected to the Crazy Mountains and have been for thousands of years. I am encouraged to see the critical step of a deepening understanding, acknowledgment, and inclusion of this particular mountain range as a significant Indigenous cultural landscape. I hope to see more opportunities that include various Indigenous perspectives from multiple Indigenous nations in this and future land exchanges and forest plans,” said Francine D. Spang-Willis, Northern Cheyenne, owner of Appearing Flying Woman Consulting, LLC.
"This Crazy Mountain Land Exchange is an important agreement negotiated by local Montanans, and it deserves the support because it is a win-win for both public and private landowners and settles decades of conflict around access to the mountains. As one of Montana's most iconic and centrally located island mountain ranges, they've been locked up and off-limits on the east side for long enough. It's time to move forward with this plan that will connect people to one of our state's greatest treasures - the sacred Crazy Mountains,” said Dr. Shane Doyle, Apsáalooke, who hails from the Crow Agency.
History of the Deal
The Crazy Mountain Land Exchange originated in 2019 after a local working group of interested stakeholders met in the Big Timber area for several years to discuss challenges and identify potential solutions to resolve the conflict over public access in the “checkerboarded” Crazy Mountains.
This citizen-led proposal was initially drafted by local landowners, then informed by a diverse and broad group of local stakeholders called the Crazy Mountain Access Project, including multigenerational Montana ranching families, sportsmen and women, members of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Nations, state and local conservation groups.
To gain additional public input and feedback, the coalition hosted their own comment period and open houses in Big Timber, Livingston, Bozeman, and Big Sky in 2020 prior to submitting the proposal to the U.S. Forest Service.
“This effort has been a long haul. But what a great example of what can happen when folks who are committed to their community and landscape show up, unfailingly, for 6 years, said Dale Sexton, a local business owner in Livingston. “We’ve learned that settling these long-standing access disputes requires community solutions and local negotiations, not heavy-handed tactics.”