Forest Service unveils Crazy Mountains land swap proposal
If approved, the East Crazy Inspiration Divide Land Exchange would consolidate checkerboard land in the Crazies and execute a smaller land swap in the Big Sky area.
Chris Boyer / Kestrel Aeria photo
MONTANA — More than a year after the Crazy Mountain Access Project group put a land swap proposal before the Custer Gallatin National Forest, the public 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. Most of the land that would change ownership is in the Crazy Mountains, an area with a complicated ownership pattern where access to a handful of trails historically managed by the Forest Service has become contentious and uncertain. The proposal also involves about 1,000 acres of land near Eglise Peak in the Big Sky area and the transfer of a section of land that includes Smeller Lake from Crazy Mountain Ranch to the Forest Service.
The proposal 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 expert ski offerings. 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. Last July, the Crazy Mountain Access Project submitted a proposal to the Forest Service for review.
If the East Crazy Inspiration Divide Land Exchange goes through, the Yellowstone Club will swap 605 acres of its property for 500 acres of Forest Service land. Proponents of the swap would also pay for the construction of a new Forest Service trail, Sweet Trunk Trail #274, located primarily on federal land along the east side of the Crazies to address contested access on the East Trunk Trail, which the Forest Service would relinquish claims to.
Members of the Crazy Mountain Access Project urged support for the project and touted the process that’s brought the Forest Service to this point.
“The East Crazy (Inspiration Divide) Land Exchange is a positive path forward to solving the access issues that have plagued this region for decades,” Melville rancher and CMAP member Nathan Anderson said in a Nov. 9 release about the proposal. “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.”
Brad Wilson, who founded Friends of the Crazy Mountains, a different group focused on maintaining access to historical trails in the area, disputed that characterization in a Nov. 15 conversation with Montana Free Press.
“This is all about Tom Glass and the Yellowstone Club. These are the guys that presented the proposal,” Wilson said, referencing one of the two consultants who coordinated meetings of the Crazy Mountain Access Project and helped wrangle brass tacks of the proposal such as grazing and water rights and land deeds. “This is not a citizen’s proposal.” Glass is the founder of Western Land Group, the firm hired by the Yellowstone Club to work on the swap.
Wilson said years of working on ranches in the range has given him intimate knowledge of the sections being swapped. As proposed, the exchange won’t be a good deal for members of the public, he said. He described the higher-elevation parcels the Forest Service would acquire along the east side of the Crazies as “just shale rock and ice,” while the lowlands that will enter into private ownership offer elk habitat and support public hunting opportunities. The lowland parcels also offer more desirable grazing land for private landowners with livestock operations, Wilson said.
Wilson’s concerns about elk habitat were echoed at a Forest Service meeting in Bozeman on Nov. 15 attended by approximately 100 people, plus another 20 or 30 who tuned in online.
One Bozeman resident in attendance described the process of resolving issues inherent in the 150-year-old checkerboard ownership framework as a “nightmare” and said he applauded the Forest Service’s efforts to resolve issues arising from those complexities. He added that he has concerns about lower-elevation parcels on the eastern side of the range being removed from public ownership.
“On the face of it, it looks like a good deal. What I have concerns about is that you’re giving up lower-elevation wintering grounds for elk in exchange for high-elevation [parcels],” he said.
Custer Gallatin National Forest Wildlife Program Manager Josh Hemenway acknowledged the Forest Service’s loss of elk winter range presented by the proposal, but noted that the higher-elevation parcels entering into Forest Service ownership are “beneficial for a number of other species,” a likely reference to snow-dependent animals such as Canada lynx and wolverine as well as ungulates like mountain goats adept at navigating steep, rocky terrain.
Meeting attendees also flagged concerns about trail maintenance and snowmobile access along the proposed reroute of the Inspiration Divide trail and asked the Forest Service whether the traded parcels in the Crazies are equivalent in terms of streams and wetlands.
Forest Service fish biologist Clint Sestrich responded that the agency is working through available data on area wetlands in the areas proposed for exchange to pair with on-the-ground observations the agency hopes to get next summer in order to ensure there is no clear deficit.
Kerry White, a motorized-use advocate who has previously served in the Montana House of Representatives, voiced concerns that snowmobile access along the Big Sky portion of the exchange involving the Eglise Rock Overlook Trail would be diminished if the swap goes through.
“The [environmental assessment] doesn’t address the impact to winter use at all,” he said, pointing out a section of the 59-page proposal noting that, even with an easement through private sections, the proposal’s reroute of Eglise Rock Overlook “may create complicated management issues particularly in winter as the trail will be challenging to follow in the snow.”
“I think we’re setting up for an enforcement issue on snowmobiling in Third Yellow Mule,” he said, referring to a drainage near the two trails that would be impacted by the Big Sky portion of the swap.
In an emailed statement, a representative from the Yellowstone Club said the exchange would route the Inspiration Divide trail directly through national forest, an improvement on the trail’s current route, two miles of which cross property held by the Yellowstone Club. He also said the swap involving parcels in Big Sky will be a net win for public recreationists, who stand to gain improved access to lower-elevation terrain in exchange for a steeper parcel.
Bozeman-based Public Land Water Access Association Executive Director Drewery Hanes asked whether the Forest Service had thoroughly explored maintenance and ownership records for Rein Lane (formerly Sweetgrass Road) leading into Sweetgrass Canyon to investigate the viability of a prescriptive easement claim.
“We just have concerns about ceding so much public access without doing due diligence, because that’s obviously very hard to walk back,” she said.
Hanes also voiced concern that the swap would effectively close one public trailhead along the eastern side of the Crazy Mountains, concentrating recreational traffic and leading to a situation in which horses or other accommodations would be required for older and less fit individuals to enjoy the trail.
Custer Gallatin Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson replied that the Forest Service doesn’t make a claim to Rein Lane and described the Forest Service’s history with Sweetgrass Trail as “mixed” and involving “many, many decades or permissive use.”
The issue of permissive use plays an important role in determining whether a party to an easement dispute can assert prescriptive rights to a road or trail. Per Montana law, if use is permissive — meaning members of the public obtain landowner permission or sign in before using the route — federal land managers have a much weaker claim for the existence of a prescriptive easement if they take the matter to court. (Absent a written or recorded easement, the only way for a party to definitively establish a prescriptive easement is to bring the matter before a judge, who will examine maintenance, use and title records.)
In her introduction to the swap proposal, Erickson described the prospect of securing prescriptive easements in a courtroom as a “long, uncertain process,” and one that the Forest Service uses only as a “tool of last resort.”
Erickson said land exchange proponents have indicated they will continue working toward conservation easements for the sections of Forest Service land that would enter into private ownership. Switchback Ranch, one of six landowners in the Crazy Mountains trading land as part of the swap, has agreed to put one section of acquired land into a conservation easement in coordination with Helena-based nonprofit land trust Montana Land Reliance as part of the swap. Switchback Ranch has also agreed to allow tribal access to Crazy Peak to Crow tribal members, in recognition of the important role the range has played in spiritual and cultural traditions of the Crow people.
Asked whether the Forest Service would relinquish any claims on Sweetgrass Trail, a historical trail that’s appeared on Forest Service maps for decades, Erickson said it would. She said the landowner of the pertinent parcel has indicated they will continue to allow permissive use on Sweetgrass Trail, but added that such an arrangement has not been formally codified in the proposal.
Sweetgrass is one of four 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.
Earlier this year, federal judges in Billings sided with the Forest Service in their determination that the Forest Service was within its discretionary authority to alter its approach to managing historical trails. The plaintiffs appealed that ruling, and the parties are currently exploring mediation, according to Matthew Bishop, the attorney representing the plaintiffs.
In the Nov. 15 meeting, Erickson acknowledged both the enormity of the proposal the Forest Service is considering and its inherent trade-offs.
“They’re really a big deal. They’re long-term commitments of resources, long-term choices that affect people and users and habitat forever, really — for decades to come,” she said. “Take the time, read the maps, look at the documents.”
As of Thursday afternoon, 17 comments on the proposal had been submitted through the agency’s online portal. The comment period closes Dec. 23.
Disclosure: MTFP Reporter Amanda Eggert is married to John Meyer, executive director of Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, which is involved in unrelated litigation against the Yellowstone Club. Meyer did not contribute to the reporting or writing of this story.