Members of the Crow Tribe are concerned about some private land development at a high elevation in the Crazy Mountains, a place tribal members consider sacred and are asking federal officials to protect.

Shane Doyle, a tribal member, said he received pictures of a cabin site being developed close to the shores of Twin Lakes at about 8,000 feet of elevation near the headwaters of Big Timber Creek.

Doyle said the pictures came from a hiker who wanted to remain anonymous because the person may have been trespassing while taking the photos. The images showed a small backhoe and other equipment near where a rock platform had been built. The tribe has also received reports that a helicopter was used to carry the equipment in.

Private landowners in general have the right to do whatever they want with their property, but Doyle is concerned about what development of even a single cabin would mean for the Crow Tribe’s push for greater protections for the Crazies in the next forest plan for Custer Gallatin National Forest. He said development at the highest parts of the range could threaten their push for recommended wilderness protections.

“This is what we’ve been trying to do is emphasize that the tribe, the community there, wants the mountains to remain as pristine as possible without the intrusion of cabins and roads and motorized vehicles into that ceremonial space,” Doyle said. “That’s the concern.”

The Crazies are known to have a complex mix of public and private land ownership. The Twin Lakes area is accessed by a trail that runs along Big Timber Creek, one of the few public access points within the range.

There are two pieces of private land near Twin Lakes owned by Switchback Ranch LLC, according to property ownership data. The company is owned by David Leuschen, a financier who is originally from Montana and also owns property in Wyoming.

A call to Switchback Outfitters, which is based in Cody, Wyoming, and is owned by Switchback Ranch LLC, was not returned before deadline. A person listed in Montana Secretary of State records as the registered agent for Switchback Ranch LLC said only the company’s owner could answer questions about the property in the Crazies and that he would ask the owner to call the Chronicle. No such call was received before deadline.

Mary Erickson, supervisor of the Custer Gallatin National Forest, said in an email that the development is entirely on private property, which generally doesn’t require authorization from the Forest Service. She said approval is sometimes required for ground-based access to such properties, but that has not happened in this case.

“There has been no request for access to this site nor has any permission been granted,” Erickson said. “Our understanding is that all materials have been transported to the site by helicopter.”

She added that the Forest Service “does not take a position one way or another on actions on private property.”

The work comes as forest officials are working on a new forest plan, an overarching document that governs activities on the forest. Within that document, forest officials can designate land for different protections, such as recommended wilderness.

The Crow Tribe is one of a few groups that has called for that protection, the highest available under the forest plan. It would not formally make the land wilderness — only Congress can do that — but the area would be managed as wilderness, meaning there would be no increase in motorized use or any new roads punched through. Doyle worries that development like the one at Twin Lakes may put more pressure on the Forest Service to allow more motorized use or build new roads.

Erickson said in the email that it’s too early to say how an access request for the area might be evaluated, and that there’s no indication the landowner will ask the agency for additional access to the property through the forest.

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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