Crazy Mountain File

A field stretches out in front of the Crazy Mountains on Rock Creek Road North on July 10.

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Federal officials are moving ahead with a land deal in the Crazy Mountains northeast of Livingston without the deal’s most controversial piece.

The U.S. Forest Service announced Thursday that it was advancing two of three pieces involved in the South Crazy Mountain Land Exchange, proposed last year. Officials plan to swap about 1,920 acres of Forest Service land for a total of about 1,877 acres owned by the Wild Eagle Mountain Ranch and Rock Creek Ranch.

Dropped from the exchange is a trade between the Forest Service and the Crazy Mountain Ranch, owned by tobacco giant Philip Morris U.S.A., Inc. That part of the exchange would have traded two lower-lying public sections for private land high in the range, but it drew the ire of hunters and some conservation groups. They saw it as the Forest Service giving up prime elk habitat with decent public access for pieces of rock and ice.

In a draft decision released Thursday, Mary Erickson, supervisor of the Custer Gallatin National Forest, wrote that concerns raised by people who hunt and fish in the area convinced her to remove that part of the exchange.

Marna Daley, a spokesperson for the Forest Service, said that doesn’t mean the Crazy Mountain Ranch deal is dead, and that it’s possible a swap with the ranch could move forward later on.

“We’ll continue to work with folks and talk about options and continue to explore the Crazy Mountain Ranch component,” Daley said.

With the release of the draft decision on Thursday, the swap now enters a 45-day objection period. A final decision could come early next year.

The trades with the Wild Eagle Mountain Ranch and the Rock Creek Ranch have been largely uncontroversial. The land parcels involved are on both sides of the border between Park County and Sweet Grass County in the south Crazies. In each case, the Forest Service is swapping public land mostly surrounded by private land for private land mostly surrounded by public.

With the swap with Rock Creek Ranch, the Forest Service will also receive a pair of small road easements — one on Robinson Bench Road that eliminates a 100-foot gap in the recorded public easements and an administrative easement on Rock Creek Road.

The moves would create a more contiguous block of public land in the southern part of the range, which is known for its complex mix of land ownership. Officials hope the deal will help them do more to improve public access in that part of the Crazies.

Public access in range has long been controversial, with conflicts over trail access and legal battles. The Forest Service has tried in recent years to make deals to improve access, such as a 2019 trail reroute. A group of landowners and conservationists are also working on a new land deal on the east side.

This deal in the southern part of the range goes back well over a decade. Forest Service documents obtained by the Chronicle through a public records request show discussions with the Crazy Mountain Ranch about a swap go back as far as 2004. The talks expanded a few years later to include the other two ranches.

The three trades were treated as a package over the past decade or so, with various starts and stops in their progress. The only opposition shown in the documents was to the Crazy Mountain Ranch portion. It surfaced as early as 2015, with hunters raising concerns about the Forest Service giving up important and legally accessible elk habitat.

That opposition ratcheted up last fall when the Forest Service put the suite of trades out for public review. Groups like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Montana Wildlife Federation joined the fight, too, arguing against the agency giving up that land.

In a video posted to the Custer Gallatin National Forest’s Facebook page Thursday, Erickson said there were also people who saw the benefits the Forest Service would get from that trade — acquiring land around two high mountain lakes and one other section. But she said opinion was split on whether it was worth giving up the lower lying sections, and ultimately the agency decided it needed more time to consider that trade.

Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said the decision to pull that part of the swap shows that the Forest Service listened to public concern.

“In this case, the public just said those two sections of land are just too good as far as their quality of wildlife habitat,” Gevock said.

He added that the Forest Service should look for other options if it continues to pursue a trade with the Crazy Mountain Ranch.

“We need to go back to the drawing board on that portion and see what other alternatives might be out there,” he said.

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Michael Wright can be reached at or at 582-2638.

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