The U.S. Forest Service announced Wednesday that it has tentatively approved a land swap involving more than 15 square miles of land located in two Montana mountain ranges.
The Custer Gallatin National Forest in an email announced that it is moving forward with a slightly modified version of the East Crazy Inspiration Divide Land Exchange, a proposal several years in the making.
In the draft decision notice, the Forest Service landed on a modified version of the proposal that the agency released for public comment last November. If the updated land swap ultimately goes through, 6,110 acres of land currently under private ownership would be transferred to the Forest Service. The agency would in turn pass 3,855 acres of national forest to private ownership. In addition to the Forest Service, the transaction would involve five landowners in the Crazy Mountains and one in Madison County — the Yellowstone Club, a luxury ski resort and residential community. The swap also includes components dealing with trails, trailheads, conservation easements, deed restrictions, and water, grazing and mineral rights.
More than a year after the Crazy Mountain Access Project group put a land swap proposal before the Custer Gallatin National Forest, the public now has an opportunity to comment on the deal, which seeks to consolidate checkerboard land in the Crazy Mountains. If the swap is approved, the Forest Service will acquire 6,430 acres of private land in exchange for 4,135 acres of federal land.
In a release, Custer Gallatin Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson said she’s excited to announce the potential trade.
“Since the close of the comment period last December, the Forest Service has been working diligently to address concerns to put forth the best exchange possible,” Erickson said. “This release initiates a 45-day objection period for those who have standing based on previous involvement. I encourage people to take the time to review materials on the Forest [Service]’s website to understand the draft decision.”
The Forest Service said the proposal will increase the total number of acres under federal ownership and consolidate checkerboard ownership patterns, thereby protecting parcels of Forest Service land intermixed with private land from development. It highlighted pieces of the swap that establish access to Crazy Peak for Crow tribal members seeking to visit land of spiritual and historical importance. Other access pieces of the proposal the Forest Service underscored include the improvement of the Big Timber Canyon Trailhead, the acquisition of Smeller Lake and the trail leading to it, and the construction of a new trail to be named the Sweet Trunk trail, which would replace the East Trunk Trail.
East Trunk Trail is currently located mostly along federal land but lacks recorded easements on some sections of private land. The Yellowstone Club, the private landowner most impacted by the proposal in Madison County, would pay for the construction of the new trail, which would stretch about 22 miles as it winds from Sweet Grass Canyon to Big Timber Canyon.
The East Trunk Trail is one of five trails that inspired a lawsuit between public access advocates and the Forest Service in 2019. Plaintiffs in that suit, including Friends of the Crazy Mountains and the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, argued that the Forest Service has succumbed to pressure from politically powerful landowners over the past several years in its decision to walk back earlier attempts to defend access to those trails by removing threatening signs and locked gates.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Cavan says the sporting and conservation groups that sued the Custer Gallatin National Forest have failed to identify a “discrete agency action the Forest Service was required to take” in its handling of disputed historic trails in the Crazy Mountains. Although not final — a more senior judge will issue a final decision — Cavan’s order marks a major development in a three-year saga over the management of four historic trails.
Last year, federal judges in Billings sided with the Forest Service that it was within its discretion to alter its approach to managing historical trails. The plaintiffs appealed that ruling and a hearing before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled for Oct. 17.
The Forest Service in the release highlighted some changes it made to the swap in response to comments from the public. To address concerns that the Forest Service is surrendering more acres that include surface water or wetlands than it gains, the agency tweaked the proposal to retain more acres that contain wetlands. That includes 200 acres of Forest Service land that encompass 50 acres of wetlands along the Crazies’ eastern flank, which “also preserves access to Sweet Grass Creek” according to the agency. Additionally, another five acres of Forest Service land that include wetlands in the portion of the swap closer to Big Sky will be retained. That boundary shift also “retains lands that are important to the Big Sky snowmobile community and retains more of the Eglise Rock Overlook Trail,” according to the Forest Service.
Another new development surrounds conservation easements. Four parcels of land in the Sweet Grass drainage will be placed under a deed restrictions agreement to be monitored and enforced by the Sweet Grass County Conservation District. Those parcels couldn’t be subdivided into parcels smaller than 160 acres, mined, or developed for oil or gas extraction. Grazing, recreation and vegetation management would be allowed. Three parcels of land near the Inspiration Divide trail located in Madison County would be put under a conservation easement barring residential development but allowing for skiing and ski resort structures and improvements.
When the Forest Service unveiled the swap last November, it received an outpouring of public interest, with a variety of individuals and groups weighing in at public meetings and through the online public comment portal. Residents of several south-central Montana counties weighed in, as did environmental groups, motorized-use advocates, hunting and fishing groups and local business owners. In total, 1,078 people responded during the 45-day public comment period.
It’s not clear how many commenters supported the proposal outlined by the agency in November and how many opposed it. Asked for that information, Custer Gallatin Public Affairs Office Marna Daley said the agency does not count comments for or against a proposal.
The swap was initiated by the Yellowstone Club, which has long sought access to Forest Service property adjacent to its existing holdings in order to expand its offerings for expert skiers. The Yellowstone Club started working with landowners in the Crazies in 2019 to put together a land swap package that would address some areas the Forest Service had identified as being high priorities for that kind of resource-intensive real estate transaction.
The Crazy Mountain Access Project, which includes representation from conservation and recreation groups as well as agricultural producers who own land in the Crazies, was borne out of that effort. Crazy Mountain Access Project forwarded a proposal to the Forest Service for consideration in July of 2021, which formed the heart of the proposal the agency released for public review last November.
Crazy Mountain Access Project member and Yellowstone Club vice president of development Mike DuCuennois said in an emailed statement that he appreciated the Forest Service’s commitment to soliciting and incorporating public comment on the proposal, which he said would result in “even greater access to quality public lands in both the Crazy Mountains and the Madison Range.”
“As a lifelong Montanan and avid outdoorsman, I know the significant role that our public lands play in our way of life and local economies,” DuCuennois said. “We are proud to be one of many groups working on this effort to increase access to public lands.”
Nathan Anderson, a rancher from Melville and member of Crazy Mountain Access Project, said in an emailed release that the exchange “is a positive path forward to solving the access issues that have plagued this region for decades.”
“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,” Anderson said.
Friends of the Crazy Mountains founder Brad Wilson took a different view. He said he has difficulty taking the Forest Service at its word and has concerns about the lower parcels of Forest Service land entering into private ownership.
“All of the landowners who are part of this say this is a good swap. If that is the case, then we should give them the rocks and peaks and we will keep our lower sections, as they are abundant with natural resources that many of us use [for] our winter meat as well as wood for our stoves,” Wilson said.
He also argued that the trail proposed for the eastern flank of the range — the Sweet Trunk Trail — will not benefit hunters, hikers and backpackers given its steepness, and that the removal of an access point in Sweetgrass Canyon will funnel even more people up Big Timber Canyon, resulting in an influx of traffic on a moderately improved gravel road.
John Sullivan, chairman of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said his group is still reviewing the proposal but is disappointed in its initial review, particularly given the loss of “historic legal public access to high-quality lands and waters.” He likened the Forest Service’s willingness to pursue the proposal to recent criticism that the Flathead National Forest has done the bidding of POWDR, a Utah-based group seeking to expand Holland Lake Lodge.
“Just as the USFS did at Holland Lake, the [Lewis and Clark-] Helena National Forest and other forests throughout Montana, this proposal slants heavily in the favor of the special interest, the politically well-connected, the wealthy ski resort developers and adjacent landowners blocking legal public access. In this case, it is the Yellowstone Club as opposed to POWDR, but the principle remains the same.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated Sept. 28, 2023, to include a comment from the Yellowstone Club.
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