An island range patterned with checkerboard land ownership, the Crazy Mountains are the backdrop to one of the most “vexing” land-use debates in the state. Crow Indians, the Northern Pacific Railroad, the U.S. Forest Service, ranchers, recreationists and politicians have all claimed ownership in parts of the Crazy Mountains at various times, seeding more than a century of access and land-use disputes that continue today. Between an active lawsuit, two land-swap proposals winding through Forest Service administrative channels, and pending development of some of the largest private properties in the foothills of the Crazies, the future of one of the state’s most iconic and disputed landscapes is playing out now. Today we publish Part III of a three-part series exploring the past, present and future of Montana’s Crazy Mountains.

The Crazy Mountains tend to be quiet. If your ears are sensitive enough and your eyes are sharp enough, the Crazies might deliver an encounter with a lynx sunning on a rock or a mountain goat navigating a talus field. The isolated range rising out of central Montana grassland is quiet largely because it’s relatively unpeopled and undeveloped. Whereas a steady stream of residents and tourists frequent ranges to the southwest like the Gallatins and the Madisons, the Crazies are far enough from a population center — and sufficiently complicated by a stubborn tangle of access issues — that they’ve largely evaded the destination designation that’s spurred growth and fertilized economic activity in neighboring Gallatin County.

read part I

That’s largely due to what has — or, more precisely, what hasn’t — happened on the 70-plus square miles of private property scattered inside the boundaries of the Custer Gallatin and Lewis and Clark national forests, remnants of a checkerboard ownership pattern established more than a century ago. Several large landowners run cattle or sheep ranches, maybe an outfitting business for extra income, but the human footprint is pretty small overall. 

That’s shaping up to change. The rumored sale of the 18,000-acre Crazy Mountain Ranch in the grassy foothills of the southern Crazies and reports of heliskiing on private inholdings along the range’s rocky spine have many observers wondering if this isolated island mountain range is poised to lose some of the quietly wild character that defines it.

NEW OWNERSHIP FOR CRAZY MOUNTAIN RANCH?

Crazy Mountain Ranch, known locally as Marlboro Ranch, is widely rumored to be sought by CrossHarbor Capital Partners, the firm that owns the Yellowstone Club, an exclusive residential development and ski area near Big Sky frequented by business tycoons and A-list celebrities. CrossHarbor, a commercial investment firm with particular expertise in purchasing distressed properties, bought the Yellowstone Club in bankruptcy court in 2009. Within six years, the Boston-based buyers had created what CrossHarbor co-founder Sam Byrne described as “the most successful residential resort subdivision in the country, if not the world,” where properties sell for between $2,500 and $3,000 a square foot. 

read part II

CrossHarbor recently completed construction of a new 500,000-square foot lodge at the club, and memberships, which are capped, are nearly sold out. In a testament to the “jobs follow people” maxim, the resort-spurred land rush has created an accompanying surge in demand for workers of all stripes: builders, landscapers, ski instructors, massage therapists, house cleaners, realtors and restaurant employees. Physically, socially and economically, the area has been vastly changed by the Yellowstone Club’s presence. 

Given CrossHarbor’s track record for developing desirable mountain properties in Montana — the company also co-owns Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peaks Mountain Club — rumors of the company’s interest in Crazy Mountain Ranch have generated a measure of unease in the area. That part of Park County isn’t zoned, so a buyer with intentions to develop it could realize considerable profits by subdividing the property and selling lots. The property could quickly become a thicket of ranchettes if all of it — or even half — were developed. 

Dale Sexton, a member of the Crazy Mountain Access Project, a group working on a land swap proposal on the east side of the Crazies, said he’s curious about the intentions of the prospective buyers. “Are they a conservation buyer, or are they an exploitative buyer?” he said. “Are they going to subdivide it? [That] could really have a major negative impact on the sanctity of the range, in my opinion.” Sexton acknowledged that he can only speculate about a prospective buyers’ intentions, and that it’s too early to draw conclusions. “Like so many of these large real estate transactions, they can pivot pretty quickly,” he said. “I think until the ink’s dry, we can assume it’s going to happen, but it can still fall through.”

Construction at the Yellowstone Club, photographed summer 2016. The exclusive club pairs residential development with access to a members-only ski area. After several years of high demand, memberships are nearly sold out. Credit: John Meyer

CrossHarbor declined to comment on its interest in Crazy Mountain Ranch, which tobacco company Philip Morris has run as a working cattle and dude ranch for more than 20 years. Altria Group, Philip Morris’ parent company, didn’t respond to interview requests. The deed remains in Philip Morris’ name, but in addition to widespread speculation, there are signs that change is afoot. In March, for example, the dude ranch’s “excess inventory” — everything from kayaks, leather couches and blackjack tables to cowboy boots, a gumball machine, a kitchen trailer and Mason jar lights — was auctioned off at the Park County Fairgrounds

Part cattle operation and part eclectic tourist draw, Crazy Mountain Ranch has a colorful history. Publishing entrepreneur Glenn Patch sold it to Philip Morris in 2000 for an undisclosed amount. For years the company ran it as a kind of Old West retreat where smokers loyal to the Marlboro brand could wander through a collection of buildings meant to channel a different time — saloon, hotel, jail, etc. — and partake of the ranch’s activities. Summer guests might go horseback riding, fly fishing or skeet shooting. A wintertime visit might involve snowmobiling or cross-country skiing. 

Though Park County residents tend to be familiar with the broad outlines of the ranch’s operation, few have been on the property outside of some sort of work arrangement. It’s generally regarded as a quirky but generally benign and light-on-the-landscape operation that was hit pretty hard by COVID-19. 

Brad Wilson, founder of the local advocacy group Friends of the Crazy Mountains, has personal experience with the ranch, having worked on some of its old barns when he was a journeyman carpenter. He describes the lower-elevation property in the foothills as a “really cool” old town, and says the high-elevation parcel along Rock Creek that’s located inside the National Forest boundary is “just gorgeous.” Wilson said he wishes everyone would take a deep breath and contemplate what’s at stake before moving forward with a sale. 

“These are some of the best places left — this is it,” he said. “It just seems like it’s disappearing every day more and more and more. We need to slow down.” 

HELISKIING AT THE SWITCHBACK RANCH

It’s not just the prospect of expanded development that points to a new future for the Crazies. Changes to how existing landowners are using their property also hint at a new era for the mountains, one that involves different ways of engaging with the landscape. 

Back in 2012, David Leuschen, an energy magnate and Yellowstone Club member who made Forbes’ 2013 list of top dealmakers, purchased the Lazy K Bar Ranch, which had been the first dude ranch in the Crazies, and renamed it Switchback Ranch, establishing consistency with another property he owns in Cody, Wyoming. Switchback Ranch includes 15 square-mile sections within the Forest Service boundary, several of which exceed 8,000 feet in elevation. None of the sections share a boundary, so the ownership pattern is classic checkerboard. 

More than a dozen landowners own property in the Crazy Mountains within the Forest Service boundary, according to this 2019 Montana Wilderness Association map. Credit: Map courtesy of Montana Wilderness Accociation

About two years ago, Montana Free Press received a tip about heliskiing on Switchback Ranch. Whoever sent the email was set on remaining anonymous — the tipster signed it “Pissedlocal406” — but they included considerable detail about the operation and outlined a handful of concerns: Were heliski guides staying within the boundaries of private land? Was the pilot using public land to pick up or drop off skiers? And if so, had the Forest Service issued any permits for the use? But of all the concerns listed, the use itself seemed paramount. 

“I’m afraid the Crazies are an example of what can and will happen to much of Montana’s public land if this kind of privileged use is allowed to propagate,” the tipster wrote.

Around the time MTFP received that email, a business called Rotor Sports Montana, LLC, approached the Caribou-Targhee National Forest about launching a heliski operation so Yellowstone Club members could ski in the Centennial Mountains, a remote range about 50 miles south of Big Sky. The Forest Service said the exclusive use of public land didn’t fit with the agency’s mission, putting a stop to the initial effort.

Elizabeth Davy, the district ranger on that part of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, said the proposal was reworked and revived in January of this year, when Bozeman businessman Jeremy Henrichon applied for a permit to take clients heliskiing and collect data on snow conditions in the Centennials. Whereas Rotor Sports Montana’s proposed operation was limited to Yellowstone Club members, Henrichon’s Rocky Mountain Heli broadened its commercial scope. Much of the staff of the two companies is the same and the proposed operations are similar, but the ownership has changed. The Forest Service appreciated that the retooled application was open to people without a Yellowstone Club membership, Davy said, but the agency still had concerns about the operation’s potential to negatively impact grizzly bears and trigger avalanches, creating a safety risk for other users. Davy said she received several hundred comments about the proposal even before any formal public comment period. Rocky Mountain Heli rescinded its application several months ago.

Rocky Mountain Heli Operations Director Jim Conway said the company was told it would need to pay for an environmental impact statement if it wanted the Forest Service to bring the application to the next level of consideration. He told MTFP the company couldn’t justify spending $150,000-$200,000 to commission an EIS for 10 to 20 days of use per year, so Rocky Mountain Heli decided to put the proposal on hold.

“Are they a conservation buyer, or are they an exploitative buyer? Are they going to subdivide it? [That] could really have a major negative impact on the sanctity of the range, in my opinion.”

Dale Sexton, Crazy Mountain Access Project

While all that was happening, the conversation about heliskiing on private land in the Crazies has remained alive, if somewhat diminished. COVID-19 effectively grounded heliskiing flights in the range, but not Conway’s ambitions. For now, he characterizes Rocky Mountain Heli as a custom operation for private landowners like Leuschen, though he noted the operation has no standing arrangement with Switchback Ranch. Conway said he would eventually like to incorporate the Crazies into a larger venture, spreading out 40 to 50 heliski days annually between four or five regions.

“We would like to do this. I think it’s fair, considering how much access snowmobilers have in all these areas, but I’m not going to force it if it really doesn’t make sense environmentally, or if there are other cultural issues,” Conway said. “If a few things fall into place, it will be a low-volume, quality experience, but there’s still a lot of question marks.” For now, he said, Rocky Mountain Heli is still exploring its viability and lucky to fly a handful of days per year. (The company previously ran a similar operation on private land in the Pintler Mountains, but that property has since sold.)

When navigating sections of Switchback Ranch that are diagonally offset, Conway said, he and his clients are careful to step precisely over property corners to avoid unpermitted use on public land. He uses a GPS to be mindful of ownership and boundaries. “I have applied for an easement to give us a 25-foot strip [between sections],” he added. “I don’t think anybody’s out there measuring it, that’s just me being an engineer.”

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Conway, a Montana State University alumnus who’s garnered notoriety in extreme-skiing circles — he was recently inducted into Teton Gravity Research’s athlete hall of fame — said part of the appeal of the Crazies is that the range doesn’t get as much backcountry use as other areas like the Bridgers or the Tobacco Roots. A backcountry skier himself, he recognizes that the sound of a helicopter’s rotor can be irksome to some, but said it doesn’t bother him. “It sounds like employment to me,” he said.

Like other stakeholders in the area, the Forest Service has been keeping tabs on the conversation around heliskiing in the Crazies. Custer Gallatin Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson said the Forest Service has fielded concerns about “a structure on a certain location, or that someone’s heliskiing,” but said she isn’t in a position to regulate use on private land. 

“If there’s some illegal use on National Forest lands, we have a role in that, but we’re not trying to control what legitimately happens on private property,” she said.

The structure Erickson mentioned is most likely a primitive high-elevation cabin that was recently built on Switchback Ranch property near Twin Lakes. Shane Doyle, a Crow performing artist and educator who’s been active in discussions about the future of the Crazies, opposed the development when it first surfaced. He said he’d generally like to see the Crazies protected from development, but he doesn’t take particular issue with heliskiing, since Crow people are unlikely to conduct traditional fasting or praying rituals that time of year. 

“In the heart of winter, there aren’t many ceremonies going on up there,” he said. 

Construction on the shore of Upper Twin Lake is shown in this undated photo distributed Sept. 12, 2019. Credit: Courtesy of Shane Doyle.

Leuschen didn’t respond to interview requests, so it’s unclear what his long-term intentions for Switchback Ranch may be, but Crazy Mountain Working Group member John Salazar said Leuschen is “actually a pretty good partner for the public,” due in part to his role in the East Side Land Swap proposal that Salazar’s group is working on. As part of that deal, Leuschen has offered to allow Crow tribal members access to Crazy Peak so they can continue a spiritual practice that predates Chief Plenty Coups, the Crow leader who received a vision in the Crazies as a young boy that guided his approach to interacting with whites in the late 19th century. Leuschen is also on the boards of the environmental nonprofit Conservation International and Montana Land Reliance, a nonprofit that works with landowners to create conservation easements for wildlife habitat, agricultural use and open space.

Salazar said he thinks Leuschen has “that conservation bone about him,” but he’s still curious about Leuschen’s vision for the Crazies. He owns more private property inside the National Forest boundary than any other landowner, so his influence is outsized. What he plans to do with the property is difficult to say. 

“That’s part of the question, right?” Salazar said.

THE CRAZIES’ NEXT ACT 

The Crazy Mountains have dodged much of the extractive use that’s stamped into other landscapes in the state — the copper mines in Butte, the terraced clear-cuts in the Bitterroot National Forest, the oil fields of eastern Montana. The area has a long history of agricultural use, but it never offered much in the way of precious metals, and most of the range is too steep and rocky to log. 

The checkerboard ownership underpinning the range’s modern history may be old, a relic of another time, but how people use the land is changing. The new Crazies could be more ranchettes and fewer working ranches, more helicopters and fewer empty skies, more money and less open space. It’s a vision that provokes excitement in some and anxiety in others.

For his part, Doyle takes a long view of access and land use, recognizing that the range and its ownership and identity will continue to evolve. 

“These things are all temporary. The next generation will come, they’ll change things, they’ll do things differently,” he said. “We want to give them a model for how to keep the conversation going.”

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Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.