Crazy Mountains

The Crazy Mountains east of Livingston.

There's some Forest Service land in the south end of the Crazy Mountains that Greg Scheeler likes to hunt.

It's up the Rock Creek drainage, east of Clyde Park. Not too hard to get to, and there's a variety of terrain — forest interspersed with meadows and aspen groves. There's food and water and some shade, all good things for elk. Which would explain why Scheeler, an engineer who lives in Helena, has pulled a few elk out of there over the years with his hunting partners. 

"It seemed like whenever I went to that spot I've had a lot of luck," Scheeler said. 

But now he and other hunters who know that spot are worried it's going away. 

The Custer Gallatin National Forest has proposed trading about 1,305 acres of public land there to the Crazy Mountain Ranch, a private retreat owned by the tobacco giant Philip Morris USA Inc. In exchange, the Forest Service would get 1,920 acres of privately owned land deeper in the mountains to the north, including two sections surrounding two high elevation lakes deep in the mountains to the north.

The swap is one part of the South Crazy Mountains Land Exchange, a package of land trades between the Forest Service and three separate private landowners there. Forest officials released the proposal for public comment earlier this month, saying the deal would improve public access and consolidate public land in a range known for its complex mixture of private and public land. It would also lock in some road and trail easements forest officials want.

While the other two deals in the package aren't as controversial, the trade with the Crazy Mountain Ranch has become a flashpoint. Hunters like the elk and deer habitat it offers. Anglers like the stretch of Rock Creek there, which is full of trout. It has attracted the ire of some conservation groups, too, such as the Montana Wildlife Federation and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

The deal's critics see it as the Forest Service giving away a wild trout fishery and prime deer and elk habitat for rocks, ice and two stocked lakes.

"We're giving up the best habitat the public holds," Scheeler said.

Mary Erickson, supervisor of the Custer Gallatin National Forest, said they expected controversy over this part of the trade, and that she understands the value people see in that land. But she believes the Forest Service would get great value in exchange — the land surrounding Rock and Smeller lakes, for example, and a permanent access easement on part of the road to the Rock Creek North trailhead.

"The Crazy Mountain Ranch portion of the exchange clearly has the most challenging tradeoff," Erickson said. "Also that portion creates some of the most compelling gains in the exchange."

The hullaballoo marks the latest public lands tussle in the Crazies, an island mountain range northeast of Livingston that's been the site of several access conflicts in recent years. Landowners have disputed the public's rights to some trails, going so far as to block some of them. The Forest Service district ranger who oversees the Crazies was briefly reassigned by agency brass in 2017 after tangling with some of those landowners. He was reinstated after an internal review of his work. Trail users have been cited for trespassing while attempting to use public trails on both the east and west sides of the mountains, including a hunter from Bozeman in 2016 and three Livingston men in the fall of 2018.

The conflicts reached federal court earlier this year, when conservation groups sued the Forest Service over four trails. The lawsuit argued the agency had failed to preserve access to the trails over the years.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service has tried to make some progress. This summer, it began work on the Porcupine Ibex Trail, a reroute of a disputed trail that a landowner had blocked for years. Agency officials have also said they're in talks with landowners on the east side of the range about access issues there.

Erickson said this latest deal has been in the works for more than a decade. She said there's no particular reason it resurfaced now other than it was the next land exchange the agency planned to carry out after finishing one near Gardiner.

"This project has been out there for a long time," she said. "It's been really waiting to have the time and capacity to bring it forward."

In total, the Forest Service would give up about 3,225 acres and receive about 3,797 acres, according to documents detailing the project. The swaps are all in the southern part of the mountains, near the border of Park and Sweet Grass counties. Each landowner has agreed to put a conservation easement on the public land they'd acquire.

It includes relatively uncontroversial swaps with the Rock Creek Ranch and the Wild Eagle Mountain Ranch. In both cases, the Forest Service is giving up hard-to-reach public land for private land that's mostly abutting Forest Service land. Nick Gevock, the conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said those two trades are "a pretty good deal for the public."

He wouldn't say the same for the Crazy Mountain Ranch trade. 

"We don't support giving away land with extraordinary elk habitat," Gevock said.

Crazy Mountain Ranch would give the Forest Service three 640-acre sections for the two sections that hunters and anglers like, shown on maps as sections 4 and 8. One of those sections is accessible by a public trail, and they overlap at the corner, meaning people can legally walk between them.

As part of the deal, the Forest Service would relocate the Cottonwood Lowline Trail (No. 272) away from Crazy Mountain Ranch lands onto public land, a change critics say would increase the elevation gain on the trail and make it much tougher for people to use.

The Forest Service would also receive a permanent access easement on part the Robinson Bench Road, which passes through the Crazy Mountain Ranch to the Rock Creek North Trailhead. Erickson said that's important because of gaps between easements on the road, meaning it's possible a landowner could argue the public doesn't have the right to use it. Crazy Mountain Ranch and Rock Creek Ranch would donate the easements for the road, according to Forest Service documents.

The agency also sees value in acquiring the land around the two lakes and a third section to the west to create a bigger block of public land at the heart of the range.

That benefit is real and makes the trade complicated one for some. Max Hjortsberg, conservation director for the Park County Environmental Council, simultaneously extolled the benefits and lamented the losses of the trade in a statement.

"The South Crazies Land Exchange helps resolve the issue of checkerboard ownership in the heart of the Crazy Mountains, strengthening the potential for wilderness in the mountain range," he said. "However, that resolution comes at a cost: The public loses access to lower elevation hunting and fishing, a concern raised by many of our members. At a time when the pressures of climate are building, and development is happening in the internal parcels on the eastern side, we need to consider the long term health and security of the Crazy Mountains."

For some, the Crazy Mountain Ranch portion simply doesn't make sense. Dane Rider, Bozeman-based board member for the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said he likes that the Forest Service is trying to do something, but that it would make more sense to view each trade separately. 

"I don't see the reason in lumping them together," Rider said. "Each swap should be based on their own merits."

Erickson said the agency wouldn't have approached any of these projects individually and that it's better to do them in one environmental analysis so interested people can see "the bigger picture." She also said the agency doesn't "have the capacity" to split the swaps into separate environmental analysis processes.

Public comment, which closes Nov. 18, is the first part of a lengthy review, with a final decision expected in fall 2020. Erickson said they've already heard a variety of opinions, and that those might change the final results.

Scheeler's not terribly optimistic that there will be change.

"They're going to push this through unless they get a lot of opposition," he said.

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