Fairview Mountain in the Crazy Mountains. Credit: Ecoflight

A group working on public access issues in the Crazy Mountains submitted a land swap proposal to the Forest Service for its review on July 19. The Forest Service will now conduct a feasibility analysis on the proposal and decide if it merits further review. 

Crazy Mountain Access Project, a group of landowners and recreation advocates, started working on the proposal in 2020. If approved, the exchange would consolidate checkerboard ownership along the eastern edge of the Crazy Mountains by swapping 4,114 acres of Forest Service land for 5,763 acres of private land located in the Crazy Mountains and in the mountains south of Big Sky. As the proposal is written, it provides for a net gain of 1,649 acres of public land.

In addition to consolidating sections of land into contiguous blocks of public and private land, the proposal involves a 22-mile reroute of the East Trunk Trail, which connects Sweet Grass and Big Timber canyons. As it currently exists, the trail, which has appeared on Forest Service maps for at least 80 years, passes through parts or all of five square-mile sections of private land. Access to sections of trail that pass through private land is hotly contested. Friends of the Crazy Mountains, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife and Habitat, and Skyline Sportsmen’s Association sued the Forest Service in 2019 over its approach to protecting public access to the East Trunk Trail and four other trails in the Crazy Mountains. 

If the exchange goes through, the Yellowstone Club, a luxury ski resort and residential community that helped coordinate the deal, would pay for the construction of the new trail, and the Forest Service would surrender any existing claims to East Trunk Trail.

The proposal submitted to the Forest Service was modified from an earlier version. It now includes voluntary land protections placed on two sections of Forest Service land that would transfer into private ownership. 

Those two sections, which total about 1,280 acres, include portions of Sweet Grass Creek. Additionally, a square-mile section encompassing Crazy Peak, the tallest mountain in the range at 11,230 feet, would be placed under a conservation easement or other voluntary land protection to “protect [its] natural resource values.” Switchback Ranch, one of the largest properties in the range inside the forest boundary, currently owns that section. Yellowstone Club member and energy magnate David Leuschen owns Switchback Ranch.

Another component of the proposal involves a provision that would allow Crow tribal members access to Crazy Peak, which is important to the tribe’s history and spiritual tradition, and was included within the boundary of the original Crow Reservation as described by the Fort Laramie Treaty.

“Since time immemorial people have fasted and prayed in [the] Crazy Mountains, and this tradition continues today,” Shane Doyle, a Crazy Mountain Access Project member who’s advocated for the Crow Tribe, said in an emailed statement about the proposal. “This recognition of the significance of Crazy Peak as a ceremonial site is a meaningful step.”

The efforts of the Crazy Mountain Access Project were facilitated by the Yellowstone Club, which has experience with land exchanges. In the 1990s, Yellowstone Club founder Tim Blixseth used a complicated network of land swaps to consolidate some of the land that later became the Yellowstone Club. The Yellowstone Club agreed to help coordinate the land swap in the Crazies to help secure land it’s long sought adjacent to the resort.

If the land exchange goes through as proposed, the Yellowstone Club will acquire 500 acres of high-elevation terrain for skiing at their resort south of Big Sky that will include chairlift access and avalanche control, but not real estate development. In exchange, the Forest Service will receive 558 acres of mid-elevation private land west of Inspiration Divide Trail, currently owned by the Yellowstone Club.

Custer Gallatin National Forest Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson said now that the agency has a proposal to review, it will conduct a feasibility analysis, which could take “several months” to complete. If the proposal passes that first hurdle, it will then go through a public scoping process, which includes environmental review and public comment. 

Erickson said there’s no hard and fast timeline for conducting the feasibility review or the environmental review and public comment.

“If it passes muster and the feasibility review, it’s really important, in our mind, to go through this open public process,” Erickson said. “We really appreciate the work of the group putting this forth, but there’s a stepwise process, and each of those steps are important for the Forest Service to go through.”  

Erickson said the Forest Service is working on several projects across the Crazies aimed at resolving issues stemming from checkerboard ownership. She said the agency has made progress on access issues on the west side with the reroute of the Porcupine Ibex Trail (formerly the Porcupine Lowline Trail), which is slated for completion this summer. On the south side, the Forest Service decided in May to move forward with a land swap involving two ranches.  

“Just having a proposal is an important milestone to start to figure out what that would look like on the east side,” Erickson said.

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.