An anonymous benefactor has purchased 615 acres at the mouth of Weatherman Draw and donated it to the Bureau of Land Management, protecting access to a popular and culturally sensitive area south of Bridger.
The deal with the BLM closed Tuesday, according to Jim Sparks, Billings Area Field Office manager. The land, owned by Rodney Crosby of Cowley, Wyo., was for sale for $185,000. Crosby had allowed public access to his property for years to access Weatherman Draw.
"It's a done deal, it's a good deal," Sparks said.
The donor, a Billings woman who Sparks said was of modest means, signed a buy-sell agreement in May and it has taken since then to clear liens on the property to allow BLM to accept the donation.
"I think what they did is a wonderful thing," said Holly Loyning-Niemi, the real estate agent who facilitated the sale.
"I think a very good deed
The gift protects the main access point to Weatherman Draw, also called Valley of the Shields, which is nationally known for its sandstone cliffs inscribed with a variety of pictographs and petroglyphs, some dating back more than 1,000 years. Several American Indian tribes revere the site as sacred, a place where they and their ancestors have gathered to pray and seek visions.
The land deal marks the second time in recent years that Weatherman Draw has dodged a development bullet. In 2002, Anschutz Exploration Corp. transferred its mineral leases to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, sparing the sensitive area from oil and gas drilling.
"It's a terrific piece of property, and we appreciate the anonymous donor, Realtor and Rodney Crosby's efforts," said Tom Carroll, BLM's realty specialist in Billings. "He had an opportunity to sell this parcel of land and could have. But once he understood how critical this was, he backed off, then the buyer backed off."
Weatherman Draw is in the rain shadow of the Beartooth Mountains to the west, and the island range Pryor Mountains to the east. The driest region in the state, the low foothills of the Cottonwood Creek drainage contain oddly shaped sandstone cliffs and narrow, deep gullies scoured by the occasional rains and snowmelt. Sagebrush, juniper and bunch grass dominate the landscape that is inhabited by mule deer, cottontail rabbits, songbirds and birds of prey.
"It's a spectacular area and special to a lot of people," Carroll said.
American Indians have long used the area, with archaeological evidence dating back 10,000 years. Some left behind depictions of warriors with large shields, dated to before the arrival of the horse in the Americas. Even after that, artists inscribed depictions of tepees and animals.
"Weatherman Draw is a really unique resource, and constant management attention is required to keep that place preserved," said Mike Penfold of the Frontier Heritage Alliance, which worked to prevent oil and gas drilling in the area. "We've seen some ORV (off-road vehicle) damage. It's a place that ought to be enjoyed on foot."
BLM has protected the draw by designating it an area of critical environmental concern, and the additional land will also fall under that classification, Sparks said. The ACEC designation is meant to protect the area's historical and cultural resources from development, although cattle grazing will be allowed.
Carroll said that in the 14 years he has worked at the Billings Field Office, this is the first time someone had donated land to the agency outright.
"It doesn't happen very often," he said. "It's flattering and shows that people respect the BLM."
Contact Brett French at email@example.com or at 657-1387.