For the first time in thirty years, the U.S. Forest Service is updating its management plan for the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. It’ll determine where you can mountain bike, build new trails and harvest timber, among other things.
It’ll also determine what happens to Crow sacred sites on the Crazy Mountains.
Roberta Bird is in unusually high spirits for someone who just puked.
“I probably will never get in a plane that small again in my life time but it was totally worth it,” Bird said.
That’s because she got to see the sites her grandma used to talk about—this time from the window of a six-seater plane. She grew up hearing about the Crow who camped at Awaxaawippiia—the Apsaalooke term for Crazy Mountains. It translates to ominous mountain.
Bird works for the Crow Department of Education as a higher education coordinator.
She said her grandma was on her mind during the flight.
“She would tell us stories about the river, and then we flew over the river,” Bird said. “I could just hear my grandma’s stories.”
Crow have been coming to the Crazy Mountains to pray and fast for centuries.
It’s where Apsaalooke Chief Plenty Coups dreamt that cattle would go on to replace bison. He had that vision on top of Crazy Peak when he was 11.
“The chiefs would go to the highest point to physically get as close as the Creator to pray and to ask for good things,” Bird said. “That connection was never lost.”
The Crow Nation wants to keep it that way. They’re advocating that the Custer Gallatin National Forest manage parts of the forest as wilderness—it’s the highest level of protection possible for public lands and would ban mechanized travel. They want it codified in the forest management plan that’s undergoing revision right now.
“We don’t want any new trails at the top, any new recreation," Bird said. “We don’t want any windmills. Just no new buildings. No new structures.”
But most importantly, she wants the Forest Service to know this: “The sacredness that we hold to it is like church,” Bird said. “You wouldn’t want an ATV going through church, or maybe a cemetery.”
Shane Doyle grew up about 150 miles away from the Crazies but said they’ve become important to him in adulthood. He first fasted on the mountains as an undergraduate in Bozeman, which he called a “life-changing” experience.
He’s now helping to push for protections for the mountains. As a community organizer, he’s gathered Crow tribal members to meet with the Forest Service.
“What we wanted the Forest Service to understand is that those are so sacred to us, we don’t even go there to have fun and recreate,” Doyle said.
But he also wanted to make it clear that the tribe has treaty rights to the Crazy Mountains.
Under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, everything between Lander, Wyoming, Big Timber, Montana, and Miles City, Montana was Crow land.
Within two decades, the government took about 80 percent of those lands away. But they also included this promise—“[The Crow] shall have the right to hunt on unoccupied lands of the United States so long as game may be found thereon.”
Virginia Kelly says the new management plan will respect those treaty rights with or without recommended wilderness. She’s the team leader for the revision plan at the Forest Service.
“We have language in our draft plan that basically says the Forest will continue to allow access to tribes for exercise of treaty rights,” Kelly said. “We will manage the land in such a way to maintain those resources that those treaty rights depend on."
The Forest Service is mandated by a complicated matrix of executive orders, congressional acts and department regulations to consult with Native American tribes about land management plans. The Custer Gallatin is consulting with 18 tribes, including Crow, as it revises and merges plans from the 1980s.
At the same time, Kelly says the Service must manage for a range of land uses that could be harmonious or harmful to the Crow’s ceremonial sites.
"Grizzly bears, wolves, bison,” Kelly listed. “We have one of the very few palladium and platinum mines in the entire world on the forest, a high degree of recreation interests, so it’s very diverse.”
The Forest Service released its draft plan this spring. A ninety-day public comment period ran from the beginning of March to early June.
Now the Service is working through all the feedback it got.
“Including names that are on petitions, it would be about 21,000,” Kelly said.
The comments advocate for everything from more commercial timber harvest to protecting native fish populations. About 200 mention the Crow tribe or nation.
“The Crazy Mountains mean a tremendous amount to me and my family,” Jaya Gatchell, a college student from Helena, Montana, wrote. "I support managing the area in close consultation with the Crow Nation."
“Dear Custer-Gallatin Ranger District, I’d like to request you honor the Crow Nation’s request to preserve the crazy mountains,” Caleb Efta of Colorado wrote.
“Their rights as a tribal nation are valuable and valid,” Rita Harding of Billings, Montana wrote. “They need to be respected.”
The Crow Tribe Executive Branch submitted a letter that said, “When the Crow look at the Crazy Mountains, they see a sacred mountain, something to be cherished and respected. Not a recreational playground.”
But Republican State Representative Kerry White says bringing religion into this would violate the separation of church and state.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for anyone to tell the federal government that you need to make a decision based on my religion or my spiritual connection,” White said in this car garage he runs out of his front lawn in Bozeman, Montana.
He directs Citizens for Balanced Use, a non-profit that advocates to expand access to public lands. He’s also served as a representative for the American Lands Council in the past, which stands for state-control of public lands.
He’s also a fifth-generation Montanan.
“I’ve been accessing these mountains and hills for the last 55 years. When is my historic…” White said, then paused. "My family's been here since 1864 on this ranch. Over 150 years of history here."
He thinks the Forest Service should make its decision based on science and that special interest groups should own the land if they want special management.
“If you ’re going to create an area up in the Crazy Mountains that is based on the religion of the Crow, then the Crow should either lease it or purchase,” Kerry said.
He owns his land—it was his Great Grandfather’s. He settled there in 1868—the same year the US Government downsized Crow territory.
The Crow see the new revision plan as a chance to get a little slice of that land back, in a way. It wouldn’t be theirs, but as recommended wilderness, it would be protected for generations to come.
Next Spring, the Forest Service will release its final draft. That’s when they’ll declare if they plan to recommend any parts of the Crazies as wilderness.