Almost two years after work began and 10 years after discussions first started, the Custer Gallatin National Forest has finished writing a preliminary environmental assessment examining a proposed land exchange north of Yellowstone National Park.
“We’re excited to have it moving closer to the finish line,” said Michael Thom, Gardiner District ranger.
Shooting Star Ranch owner William D. Morean, a billionaire businessman who also owns property outside Red Lodge, is offering to trade 583 acres of land along Slip and Slide Creek, a tributary to the east side of the Yellowstone River northwest of Gardiner, for a 590-acre federal inholding at his ranch in the Upper Cinnabar Basin, on the west side of the Yellowstone River and 12 miles northwest of Gardiner.
With appraisals and a hazardous material review of the properties done, the Forest Service is hoping to have the deal finalized within six months. Otherwise, the hazardous review would have to be rewritten as they are only good for six months, Thom said.
The Slip and Slide Creek land is a key puzzle piece to connecting public lands in the Gardiner Basin. The property adjoins the southernmost portion of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ 4,800-acre Dome Mountain wildlife management area. The northern border of the Slip and Slide land borders Custer Gallatin National Forest property. Morean bought the ranch in 2008 after the Rigler family failed to reach a deal with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
This parcel is key to wildlife and land interests for a couple of reasons.
“The big purpose is wildlife habitat and public access,” Thom said. “That’s a big migration route for that Northern Yellowstone elk herd. So it’s a pretty important spot to maintain that corridor.”
Elk and other wildlife that are traveling to and from Yellowstone National Park north to the Dome Mountain WMA and the Paradise Valley travel through this mountainous area in the spring and fall.
Acquisition of the land would also mean public access to the locale.
“Currently on the east side of (Highway) 89, north of Gardiner to Yankee Jim Canyon, only three trailheads exist, making the public use/enjoyment of these areas difficult,” the EA stated.
One of those access points is the Forest Service’s Slip and Slide trail, which skirts the northern edge of the private property before tying into the Cedar Creek trail to the south for a 9-mile route.
The land swap would also serve another important function.
“The acquisition would … conserve important scenic values in the upper Gardiner Basin,” the EA stated, protecting a portion of the narrow section of the Highway 89 corridor to the park’s Northern Entrance, located about 12 miles north of Yellowstone National Park, from subdivision and development. Maintaining migration corridors around Yellowstone has been a key focus of many conservation groups and wildlife researchers who have seen the effects of increasing development around the park’s boundaries on migratory animals.
Although federal land law requires the properties to be of equal value, Morean has agreed to donate the difference if the appraisal for his land is higher. The Forest Service won’t disclose the appraisals until the final EA and decision notice is issued. Morean has also arranged to grant a permanent conservation easement if he acquires the federal land inholding at his Upper Cinnabar Basin property, although the easement would allow one recreation cabin to be built.
As part of the deal, at closing Morean would also transfer to the Forest Service, without fee, the right of first refusal for about 90 acres of land owned by the Rigler family that adjoins the Slip and Slide property. That transfer does not include other lands owned by the Riglers located between Highway 89 and the Yellowstone River, or lands in the Sphinx Mountain Trailer Park, according to the EA.
The lower portion of the Slip and Slide property is leased to the Montana Department of Livestock and USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for use as a bison quarantine facility. The DOL lease affects most of the 90-acre-right-of-first-refusal property that is held by Morean. Morean will not extend the bison lease. Thom said those bison may be moved out by Feb. 28.
Also modified would be a lease by Rob Stermitz, owner of Wilderness Connections, a local hunting outfitter. The Forest Service would change Stermitz’s lease that had allowed him to hunt on its Cinnabar Basin property if the land swap is finalized. Stermitz was able to access the forest land from his property.
One other part of the complicated land exchange would put the sportsman’s access provided to FWP by Franklin Rigler to “become (forest) lands directly available to the public upon completion of this land exchange.” Thom said the route had allowed hunters to reach forest land across the private property.
Although Slip and Slide Creek feeds the river, it’s not large enough to attract spawning fish. There are three ponds on the land proposed for exchange, totaling 12.5 acres, that have been stocked with rainbow trout, which are not self-sustaining. “No fish were detected during a 2011 electrofishing survey of Slip and Slide Creek on NFS lands,” the EA said.
Comments are being taken on the preliminary EA through Nov. 22. To comment, log on to the Forest Service’s website at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=48017 or write to Sitka Pence c/o Mary Erickson Forest Supervisor, P.O. Box 130, Bozeman, MT 59771.
Following the comment period the Forest Service will write an EA and final decision notice.
“By next spring it should be wrapped up,” Thom said.