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Guest view: Crazies land exchange needs public scrutiny
GUEST OPINION

Guest view: Crazies land exchange needs public scrutiny

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Big Timber Creek

Big Timber Creek, at right, provides the only public route into the Crazy Mountains on the east side. 

The proposed “East Crazy Mountains and Inspiration Divide Public Access Improvement Land Exchange” was crafted over the past three years behind closed doors by the Yellowstone Club, Crazy Mountain landowners (some of whom are actively blocking the two National Forest trails named in the proposal), and others, including the Forest Service.

The one thing that seems to have been ignored from the start during their discussions was that these trails being blocked are our public National Forest trails.

The Forest Service and the public have a long history of public use on these trails dating back to the early 1900s and there are also Northern Pacific public easements. The Forest Service has long held the position that these trails are public.

Crazy Mountain landowners even sued the Forest Service challenging that position after release of the 2006 Gallatin Forest Travel Plan EIS. A federal Judge ruled for the Forest Service in that case.

But in 2017, things changed. The Forest Service removed its District Ranger and subsequently quit managing and defending these trails entirely. This gave the trail blockers tremendous leverage in proposing deals (the exchange) which favor them. Litigation against the Forest Service involving East Truck, Sweet Grass and two trails on the west side of the Crazies was filed last year for these simple reasons: the Forest Service cut the public out, refused to do NEPA on the west-side trail exchange and chose to no longer defend the public’s interest on any of the trails.

It now appears the Forest Service has checked out and outgranted its access responsibilities in the Crazy Mountains to the Yellowstone Club and a coalition of special interests. Some would receive huge benefits if this proposal goes through, adding the highest value lands to their commercial hunting operations.

Notice in the proposal that not one foot of Forest Service trail that is currently being illegally blocked is opened. In fact, the public gives away the nine mile East Truck Trail entirely and the National Forest sections it crosses. It also gives away two key National Forest sections on Sweet Grass Creek. Even though it won’t be official, this will effectively abolish the first four miles of the Sweet Grass Trail 122. A half mile walk from the historic Sweet Grass trailhead will now require a 22-mile hike or horseback ride from Big Timber Canyon to get to the Sweet Grass trail.

However, much of the private lands next to National Forest including the lower Sweet Grass have motorized access. This proposal should be called “Crazy Mountain Enhance Commercial Elk Hunting and Close Public Access to Lower Sweet Grass Forever Exchange."

The proposed 22-mile trail between Big Timber Canyon and Sweet Grass would traverse higher (1,000 feet higher in places) and steeper terrain. There would be four major ascent and descent elevation changes. The exchange effectively shrinks the Forest Boundary trading away lower elevation lands for higher, steeper country. This higher elevation land would be valuable to consolidate but it should not be done at the expense of lower elevation lands.

The proposal states that a complete trail loop would be available to the public between Big Timber Canyon and Sweet Grass drainages. Since the Forest Service has refused to do its job defending its trails, the first private land encountered on this loop could be blocked and the public is back dealing with a blocked trail. How would you like to hike or ride a horse 22 miles and find another blocked trail? Nothing in the proponent’s website or brochure mentions these details.

This exchange proposal needs to go through the public NEPA process. Letting the politicians make the decision would cut the public out. A better solution for the checker boarded lands in the Crazies would be to set up a long term program where the Forest Service would have to purchase private inholdings from willing sellers and not make these short sighted land trades. One only has to look at the Bridger and Gallatin exchanges done in the past to see what happens. Don’t effectively reduce the Crazy Mountain National Forest Boundary Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot reserved more than a hundred years ago.

John Daggett grew up in Harlowton and started going into the Crazies as a young boy with his parents in the early 1960s and has spent countless hours there since. He retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the Fort Peck Dam Project Manager  in 2016, after over 38 years of federal service.

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