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Proposed Land Swap Aims To Reduce Conflict, Improve Access In Crazy Mountains

A woman types on a laptop on her lap next to a poster that reads "Crazy Mountains."
Rachel Cramer
Yellowstone Public Radio
Erica Lighthiser, director of the Park County Environmental Council, prepares for a press debrief July 9, 2020 at the Mission Field Airport near Livingston to discuss the Crazy Mountain Access Project's proposed land exchange.

Update: An earlier version of this story stated Rob Gregoire won, rather than settled the court case in 2017. YPR regrets the error.

A group of unlikely bedfellows is trying to drum up support for a plan it says will reduce conflict in the Crazy Mountains and improve access to public land in southwest Montana. The plan includes land swaps and a new trail.

As a young kid growing up in northwest Montana, Rob Gregoire, says he could hike pretty much anywhere.

“When I came down here, I found the Crazy Mountains to be a little bit [of a] different situation. If you took a look at a map, you could see that the public lands were a series of islands, and really the only way you could get to them was to take trails that crossed a lot of private land,” Gregoire says.

The checkerboard pattern of public and private land is a remnant of 19th century policy-making when the federal government gave railroad companies alternating, square-mile sections of land up to 20 miles from where they were laying down tracks.

In 2016, Gregoire was cited for trespassing on the eastern side of the Crazies. He challenged the claim in court, arguing he had been using a public trail marked by U.S. Forest Service maps.

While Gregoire settled the case in 2017, three men were found guilty of trespassing last year while trying to follow another trail with historic use on the west side of the Crazies.

Erica Lighthiser says tension between private landowners and public land users has been escalating in recent years.

“The aim here is to resolve a decades-old access dispute and create some certainty for the public as well as landowners,” Lighthiser says.

Lighthiser is the director of the Park County Environmental Council and part of an informal coalition called the Crazy Mountain Access Project, which is made up of ranchers, tribal representatives, hunters and conservationists.

The coalition released a proposal July 9 that includes land swaps on the eastern side of the Crazies and in the Madison Range near Big Sky. It’s intended to improve public land access and appease landowners, put to rest a disputed trail without recorded easements, and make it easier for Crow tribal members to visit a sacred site.

In the proposal, which would need approval from the U.S. Forest Service or an act of Congress, the Custer Gallatin National Forest would acquire over 5,205 acres of private “checkerboard” inholdings. This would result in about a 30 square mile block of public, mostly roadless land on the eastern side of the Crazies.

In exchange, the half dozen landowners involved with the proposal would receive around 3,614 acres of National Forest land adjacent to the range. It would consolidate private land in an area that has more roads and development.

“My goal in this was to solve it without going to court," says rancher Nathan Anderson, another member of the Crazy Mountain Access Project.

“Nobody wants litigation. Nobody wants to go to court. I guess lawyers do, but that’s how they make a living. I had faith in humanity that we could sit down at a table and have a conversation and solve an issue," Anderson says.

The coalition’s proposal also includes a new 22 mile trail, which would connect Half Moon campground in the south with Sweet Grass Creek in the north, and link to other trails to form a 40 mile loop.

“The trail itself is estimated to cost about $1 million,” Erica Lighthiser says, “but as a component of the exchange, it actually would cost the taxpayers nothing because the Yellowstone Club would pay for all the design costs, the construction costs and the analysis for the new trail.”

Why would a resort for the ultra wealthy in Big Sky pay for a trail in the Crazies? Well, that’s where the Madison Range comes in.

In exchange for paying for the trail and giving the Forest Service around 560 acres of land near Cedar Mountain in the Madison Range, the Forest Service would give the Yellowstone Club around 500 acres of high-elevation ski terrain adjacent to existing ski lifts. No residential or non-ski development would be permitted.

A third component of the proposal would be improving access in the Crazies for the Crow people, who have visited the range to pray and fast for centuries.

Shane Doyle, a member of the Crow tribe and the coalition, says the proposed 22-mile trail and a new agreement with one of the landowners will help Crow Indians access Crazy Peak.

“The landowner, David Leuschen, has extended the sincere invitation to the Crow people. He wants them to feel safe; he wants them to feel welcome there, to continue that great tradition that has been going on for so many hundreds of years,” Doyle says.

The Crow Tribe Executive Council, Crazy Mountain Stockgrowers and Sweet Grass County Commission have voiced support for the proposal.

The Montana Wilderness Association is also supportive but would like to see conservation easements for the sections that are traded into private ownership, especially along Sweet Grass Creek. This would protect those areas of previously public land from development.

Afrer publishing this story, MWA's Communications Director Ted Brewer asked for a clarification, saying, "We are supportive of land consolidation in the Crazy Mountains, but the Crazy Mountain Access Project proposal in its current form does not meet our approval."

Meanwhile, two organizations are against: Friends of the Crazy Mountains and Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife Habitat. They’re part of an ongoing lawsuit against the Forest Service, alleging the agency has neglected to preserve access to historic trails in the Crazies, including several on the east side that would be rerouted if this proposal goes through.

The Crazy Mountain Access Project says the Forest Service does not hold recorded easements for Trail #136/East Trunk Trail and that its location on maps has changed repeatedly over time.

Both organizations say they’re also concerned that the public input and environmental review process for the land exchange and new trail could be steamrolled if approved by U.S. Congress rather than the Forest Service.

Erica Lighthiser with the Crazy Mountain Access Project says, “If Congress decides to take this exchange on, it would have its own public hearing process.”

She says the environmental analysis is required whether the plan is approved by Congress or the Forest Service; the coalition is “hopeful the Forest Service and Congress will work together to provide ample opportunities to engage in the process and comment.”

Rob Gregoire, the hunter who was cited for trespassing in 2016, says the Crazy Mountain Access Project’s proposal isn’t perfect, but it’s a good solution. He says collaborative efforts to erase the checkerboard pattern of private and public land in other mountain ranges show that the same can happen in the Crazies.

“There was a similar situation in the Gallatins some 30 years ago, and people got together, and it was controversial, probably like this will be, but you go there now and you ask anybody, and most of them don’t even realize it was an issue, and they just take it for granted. It’s always been a great place to go,” Gregoire says.

He thinks people will have the same outlook about the Crazies if the proposal goes through.

The Crazy Mountain Access Project is seeking public feedback over the next 30 days before submitting the proposal to the Custer Gallatin National Forest Service and Montana’s Congressional delegation. The coalition recently launched a website with an interactive map and will host a series of open houses over the next four Thursdays.

Livingston: July 16th, Shane Lalani Center, 6-8pm

Big Timber: July 23rd, American Legion, 6-8pm

Bozeman: July 30th, Masonic Lodge, 6-8pm

Big Sky: August 6th, Wilson Hotel, 6-8pm