It’s a small step that took years of work, but the south end of the Crazy Mountains will have two fewer sections of private land inholdings, allowing easier access to public lands.
Under a final decision announced by the Custer Gallatin National Forest on Monday, two land trades valued at more than $1.7 million have been approved for 1,900 acres.
“I am excited to bring this piece of the South Crazy Project to a decision,” said Kathy Minor, acting forest supervisor, in a press release.
Still remaining are about 59,800 acres of private land pockmarking the Forest Service's 173,560 acres in the Crazy Mountains, a majestic island mountain range north of Livingston that is sacred ground to the Crow Tribe.
“The checkerboard public/private landscape continues to be a barrier to long-term conservation and certainty around public access in the Crazies,” said Erica Lighthiser, deputy director of the Park County Environmental Council, which has been advocating for cooperative solutions.
The inholdings are a relic of the federal government’s gift of lands to Northern Pacific Railroad barons for building tracks out West in the 1800s. Now some of those sections are owned by newer titans of industry — oil barons, agribusiness heirs and a multinational tobacco company.
As evidence of the passion over public lands, a third proposal that would have conveyed another 1,900 acres, provided access to two lakes, a road easement and a proposed section of trail was tabled. That portion of the original exchange proposed with the Crazy Mountain Ranch was shelved after members of the public decried the loss of two federal sections identified by hunters as prime elk habitat.
“On a landscape such as this, it is not surprising that people have expressed strong reservations about the loss of specific NFS lands that they use and enjoy,” the Forest Service noted.
Under the Forest Service’s Final Decision Notice, only the trades with the Wild Eagle Mountain Ranch and Rock Creek Ranch will move forward.
“During the multiple public comment opportunities and the 45-day objection period we heard tremendous passion for access and public lands in the Crazy Mountains, and consistent support for the WEMR and RCR portions of the proposal,” said Minor, the acting forest supervisor.
John Sullivan, president of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers which had criticized the Crazy Mountain Ranch portion of the trade, said his group appreciated the Forest Service “listening to the majority of Montanans.
“This land exchange is good for Montana hunters, anglers and other recreationalists,” he wrote in an email.
Lighthiser, of the PCEC, said the exchange is a step in the right direction.
“While the decision will not result in a fully contiguous public landscape in the southern part of the Crazies, we’re pleased to see the Forest Service focusing on the Crazies and listening to public input,” she said. “We hope this decision builds momentum for even more collaborative discussions about the importance of land consolidation to resolve the challenging issues in the Crazy Mountains.”
The deals are outlined in the Forest Service’s Final Environmental Assessment, Finding of No Significant Impact, and Final Decision Notice. The landowners have agreed to place conservation easements on the forest parcels they acquire, prohibiting development.
“Land exchanges are an important tool that the Forest Service uses to consolidate ownership, acquire lands with high wildlife or recreation values, and resolve public access issues,” the agency wrote in its Decision Notice. “Though they present opportunities to gain lands in the public estate, there are always tradeoffs involved in lands conveyed out of public ownership.”
The two Rock Creek Ranch sections that will be acquired are along a proposed new route for the Cottonwood Lowline Trail No. 272. In exchange, the forest is giving up a forested mountainside above Rock Creek and an isolated parcel along Duck Creek.
The Wild Eagle Ranch will acquire an isolated Forest Service section in exchange for its 640 acres east and north of the parcels that the Forest Service is exchanging to the Rock Creek Ranch.
The part of the deal with the Crazy Mountain Ranch would have removed three more sections of inholdings, one each around Rock and Smeller lakes that provide irrigation water for farmlands downstream. That deal also included allowing Forest Service access on two roads and public access on another route.
“If at a future time a decision is made to proceed with the CMR components of the proposed action, a subsequent draft decision notice would be made publicly available for a 45-day objection period,” the Forest Service said.
To finalize the exchanges, the Forest Service will need about a month to conduct a secondary review of the titles. Then the landowners will have an opportunity to review the documents. A final signing of the deeds could occur by July.
Still waiting in the wings is a proposal by landowners on the east side of the Crazy Mountains to exchange lands between Sweet Grass Creek and Big Timber Creek to consolidate holdings. The Crazy Mountain Working Group deal was outlined to the public last year but still has not been turned over to the Forest Service for consideration.
The proposal would give the Custer Gallatin National Forest 5,025 acres of private inholdings in the Crazy Mountains in exchange for 3,614 acres of lower elevation forest lands. The deal also includes 500 acres of high elevation terrain to be used by the Yellowstone Club’s skiers at Big Sky in exchange for 558 acres of land along the Inspiration Divide Trail, which accesses the east side of Cedar Mountain in the Madison Range.
The Yellowstone Club would also offer to finance construction of a new 22-mile trail connecting Big Timber and Sweet Grass creeks, tying into existing trails for a 40-mile loop route. Additionally, the club offered to expand the parking area at the trailhead near Half Moon Campground along Big Timber Creek.
“We look forward to working with the community, landowners and stakeholders to tackle other important lands work across the forest," said Minor, of the Custer Gallatin National Forest.
The Forest Service’s documents are available online at: www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=56687.