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Forest Service land swap

Gardiner District Ranger Mike Thom gives visitors a tour of land that was recently exchanged near Gardiner. The old Slip and Slide Ranch is on the east side of Highway 89 about 12 miles north of Gardiner.

CORWIN SPRINGS — Word has spread. It didn’t take long.

On May 15 the title was filed on a property exchange between the Custer Gallatin National Forest and part-time Red Lodge businessman William Morean. A week later visitors were already exploring the 583-acres of the old Slip and Slide Ranch that is now in public hands.

A surprised Gardiner District Ranger Mike Thom ran into a couple of the sightseers on Wednesday as he was driving wildlife program manager Josh Hemenway up a narrow road that quickly climbs from the Yellowstone River valley. Rounding a corner, there was an unexpected pickup coming downhill.

“The word’s going to get out,” Thom admitted after chatting with the couple. “There’s a lot of excitement” in the community.

Critics will, and have, argued that the Forest Service shouldn’t be acquiring any more property because it can’t take care of the land it already manages. Concerns about weeds and overgrazing by wildlife have been expressed to Thom, to which he replies that the benefits of the land exchange far outweigh any downsides — for the public and the area's unique variety of wildlife.

"It's pretty land. It's easy to get to and it's full of elk. We enjoyed excellent elk hunting there," Morean said. "There's good fishing, beautiful hiking and garnets up there.

Muskrat

A muskrat swims in an irrigation pond on land on the old Slip and Slide Ranch. The pond is one of three on the property.

Scenic parcel

The old ranch is easy to find, hugging Highway 89 — the main route south from Livingston to Gardiner and the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park. The entry to the ranch is just across the highway from the Joe Brown fishing access site.

From two large hay meadows located at an elevation of about 5,000 feet, the land quickly climbs up steep, rocky hillsides dotted with sagebrush, juniper and prickly pear cactus to a large pond, one of three manmade pools on the property.

The pond was hosting a variety of wildlife when Thom stopped, from red-winged blackbirds and yellow-rumped warblers to muskrat and mallard ducks. Nearby mule deer and a small band of roughly furred elk grazed in an upper meadow. Rainbow trout reportedly were planted in the pond, but none surfaced from the muddy water to reveal their presence.

Views across the valley exposed Cutler Lake, a winter ice hockey spot, in the southern shadow of 6,800-foot Sphinx Mountain.

By the time the road ends it has climbed 1,200 feet in about a mile-and-a-half (as the crow flies). The last pitch includes a spot where Slip and Slide Creek plunges in a silvery stream 150 feet down a cliff to the upper pond.

From the end of the road, 8,500-foot Dome Mountain touched low-slung storm clouds to the northwest, a pass for migrating animals spreads across the mountain’s eastern base. Looking up the river valley to the southeast, snowy Electric Peak jutted above the narrow basin that is threaded by the highway and Yellowstone River.

The sweet scent of sagebrush mixed with the occasional sewage-like whiff of pond muck as a breeze stirred the air.

Mike Thom

Gardiner District Ranger Mike Thom gives visitors a tour of a new Custer Gallatin National Forest land acquisition. 

Next steps

Now the Forest Service is tasked with figuring out how to manage the property.

The main reason for the acquisition was to provide wildlife habitat between Yellowstone National Park and the Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area, prime elk winter range at the southern end of the Paradise Valley. Elk regularly traverse the steep mountainside between the two as the seasons change.

The land also provides grizzly bear habitat, Thom said.

Federal possession of the property keeps it from being developed, ensuring the land remains in a largely wild state, Hemenway noted.

To further that goal, and as part of the exchange deal, Morean had a two-story cabin removed from the property that the previous landowner had built. Power lines to the cabin will eventually be taken down, interior fences removed, and the road up through the property will be closed to motorized vehicles. A Montana Department of Livestock lease that allowed quarantine of Yellowstone bison on the hay meadows has also been terminated and the high fence removed.

An old mobile home was also hauled out, and a barn has yet to be torn down from the hay meadow.

The dams will remain, but the Forest Service will probably modify the structures to ensure they are flow-through by removing any irrigation gates, Thom said.

“We’re not interested in managing impoundments,” he said.

But the ponds add habitat diversity to the landscape that the agency wants to see preserved.

To assess the landscape, the Forest Service has conducted a hydrology survey of the ponds. Next will be a drone flight to map the topography.

“There are a lot of little steps to make it happen,” Thom said.

Waterfall

Water cascades down rocky terrain on land that was part of a recent Forest Service exchange.

Public access

Because of its close proximity to Highway 89, the Yellowstone River, Gardiner and Yellowstone National Park, visitation to the property could be high. It’s easy to see hikers, mountain bikers, hunters and cross-country skiers making use of the property.

Next door to the north, the Joe Brown Trailhead may eventually be removed since it accesses the same area but skirted the ranch land to reach the forest property behind. Besides, the road through the Slip and Slide Ranch will provide a more direct and easier access route for recreationists.

Map of Slip and Slide Ranch and Dome Mountain WMA

In exchange

The land exchange took four years to complete, so it was no easy task.

"I can tell you the prior owner started this 20 years ago," Morean said.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks had originally attempted to buy the property, but the deal fell through because it would have required a long wait for federal Land and Water Conservation Fund money to seal the deal.

Morean stepped in with the hope of trading the Slip and Slide to the Forest Service for a landlocked parcel of federal property inside his Shooting Star Ranch, located in the nearby Cinnabar Basin. That landlocked parcel was close to Morean's residence and there were problems with illegal hunting and guiding on the federal land that was difficult for the agency to police, he said.

So 13 years ago he started negotiating with the agency to make an exchange, in the meantime Forest Service personnel came and went.

"It was an interesting process, really challenging," Morean said. "It took a lot of tenacity to stay in the game."

The price tag just for the lands was $1.23 million.

The agency will keep administrative access to forest property through Morean’s ranch. In addition, he agreed to put the newly acquired property into a conservation easement. He’s already placed almost 2,000 acres of his ranch in a conservation easement.

“It’s not a big loss from the public access standpoint,” Thom said, since the property was publicly inaccessible anyway. He praised Morean for assistance in completing the exchange.

“Bill Morean saw the benefit for all sides,” he said.

"We bought it to help solve the problem, but the Slip and Slide, we kind of fell in love with that land," Morean said. 

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