Crazy Mountains

Cows graze in a field against a backdrop of the Crazy Mountains on July 16, 2019.

Federal officials are looking to pick up some pieces of private land scattered throughout the southern Crazy Mountains as part of a land swap involving three different private landowners.

The U.S. Forest Service released documents Thursday detailing the South Crazies Land Exchange, a proposed trade that would give the agency six isolated sections totaling nearly 3,800 acres of private land. The land that would become public is owned by Rock Creek Ranch I, Ltd., Wild Eagle Mountain Ranch LLC and the tobacco company Philip Morris USA, Inc.

In exchange, the Forest Service would give up five sections of public land totaling about 3,200 acres that are now either completely or mostly surrounded by private land. The deal also includes the reroute of part of a trail that crosses private land there.

Forest officials say the deal would consolidate federal land in the southern part of the island mountain range northeast of Livingston. It would also make public the land around Rock and Smeller lakes and secure some road and trail easements.

Thursday’s document dump begins a long public process of vetting the deal, which has been in the works since about 2005, according to Marna Daley, a Forest Service spokeswoman. Forest officials are hosting an open house on the deal later this month in Livingston. The Forest Service is accepting public comments until Nov. 18.

Lauren Oswald, the recreation manager for the Custer Gallatin National Forest, said they hope to make a final decision on the exchange “within the next calendar year.”

If completed, the deal would represent another step the agency has taken to deal with access issues in the Crazies. The range consists of a complex mix of public and private land — often referred to as “checkerboard” land ownership because of how it looks on a map — and access disputes have boiled over in recent years. The Forest Service has been talking with some landowners there about access issues and began work this summer on rerouting a disputed trail on the west side of the range.

The proposal’s release also comes as the Forest Service is in the middle of a lawsuit over public access to four disputed trails in the range. Friends of the Crazy Mountains, Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife Habitat, Skyline Sportsmen and the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers filed the lawsuit, arguing that the Forest Service has failed to adequately preserve public access to the trails named in the suit.

The Forest Service asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit in August. Earlier this week, a judge denied that request.

Consolidating blocks of Forest Service land in the southern part of the range is one of the goals of the exchange the agency announced Thursday. Five of the six parcels the Forest Service would acquire are already completely surrounded by federal land, and the sixth has federal land on three sides.

Philip Morris USA would give the Forest Service the two sections that cover Rock and Smeller lakes. The Forest Service preliminary environmental assessment of the exchange said acquiring that land would provide more recreation opportunities and provide habitat for Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

The swap would lock in a permanent road easement for Robinson Bench Road No. 139 to bring people to the Rock Creek North trailhead. The Forest Service would receive a permanent administrative easement for Rock Creek Road No. 199 and North Hammond Creek Road No. 1958.

A trail easement would also be secured for the relocation of part of Cottonwood Lowline Trail No. 272. According to the environmental assessment, there aren’t any written easements for the existing version of the trail, which crosses private land. The new trail would move to the north and would be suitable for pedestrian, stock and mountain bike use, according to the assessment.

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

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