Archaeological surveys reflect what the Apsaalooké Crow have known all along — that Native people have and continue to climb high up into the Crazy Mountains to fast and to pray.
High atop the peaks and ridges that criss-cross the island range, Native people continue to find and use old fasting beds, which have maintained their integrity for centuries, said Shane Doyle, a Crow scholar and educator who lives in Bozeman.
The ceremonial sites stay intact because of where they are. If they were lower down on mountainsides, they would wash away during the annual spring or summer melt. In the jagged peaks of the Crazies, the snowpack is particularly intense, as is the flooding.
Crow people have never thought of the Crazy Mountains as a destination for resource-gathering and instead have considered it a place for ceremonial use, Doyle said. Elk, bison and other wildlife would congregate at lower elevations, and violent floods limited access into the range for the majority of the year.
Chief Plenty Coups was nine when he fasted on Crazy Peak in 1860, so the story goes. It was a couple of years before gold was discovered in Alder Gulch and Virginia City, and an influx of white settlers arrived in the region.
On Crazy Peak — the tallest in the mountain range at 11,214 feet — Plenty Coups had a vision that shaped early Tribal diplomatic policies toward the U.S. government. The interpretation of his dream led the Crow people to seek out peaceful interactions during the gold rush.
“It’s just a really historically important spot,” Doyle said. “When the miners came, the Crow people knew they were coming already. They chose not to try and fight them or have any kind of a war with them because it was that boy’s vision that told them they would lose that war.”
Crazy Peak is a difficult place to reach. Doyle has been up there several times. It’s pointy, windswept and barren, and “you have to watch every step” on the way up. Today, the peak is owned by David Leuschen of the Switchback Ranch LLC.
If a U.S. Forest Service proposal to exchange thousands of acres of private and public land along the east side of the Crazy Mountains is approved, Leuschen has agreed to allow Crow Tribal members to access Crazy Peak.
It’s one component of a sweeping deal that would consolidate public land in the range’s interior and transform access along its eastern edge. The East Crazy Inspiration Divide Land Exchange was dreamed up by area landowners, conservation and sporting groups and the Yellowstone Club — a high-end private club in Big Sky.
Now the land swap is in the hands of the Custer Gallatin National Forest, which has been working to protect habitat and resolve access disputes in the range for decades. The Crazies are plagued by a “checkerboard” pattern of land ownership that emerged as a result of railroad land grants from the 1800s.
Earlier this month, after years of negotiations, the Forest Service released a draft environmental assessment for the project. The federal agency plans to accept public comments on the document through Dec. 23.
Advocates believe the land exchange will provide the general public with more certainty by clearly identifying where people have a legal right to be. They also believe that consolidating higher-elevation land into federal ownership will protect larger swaths of habitat, preserving the range’s wild character into the future.
Others are more skeptical of the deal. Some people worry that transferring lower-elevation parcels of federal land into private ownership could put prime riparian habitat at risk. Others think the Forest Service should defend public access rights in court rather than negotiate.
For his part, Doyle is supporting the east side land swap. He wants Crow people to be able to access Crazy Peak if they want to make the journey. He also wants them to be able to visit other areas along the range’s eastern edge.
“I think this plan will provide both those things — ceremonial access and day-use access. The day-use will reinforce our community’s appreciation for the mountains and will instill in future generations a desire to protect them from development, so that they can remain wild and true to their personality,” he said. “They are the Crazy Mountains, and they shouldn’t be domesticated.”
Where the high peaks of the Crazy Mountains descend into timbered slopes and grassy foothills on the east side of the range, trails lead to dirt roads, and dirt roads connect with county roads alongside ranch properties.
There’s a point on the route up to Sweet Grass Canyon where Rein Lane veers off from the county road. There’s a cattle guard, a ranch gate and a sign that marks the road as private. Permission is required to drive through it beyond ranch headquarters, the sign says.
Rein Lane is 7 miles long, and it’s the access road to get to Sweet Grass Trail (No. 122) and East Trunk Trail (No. 136). It’s also a private road, according to the Forest Service, but the landowners allow people to drive through seasonally, as long as they obtain permission.
There’s a debate around whether the public has a legal right to use those two routes, which run further through the drainage. The Forest Service lacks recorded easements on Sweet Grass Road (No. 990) and sections of Sweetgrass Trail (No. 122), it claims.
The convoluted access paradigm in that area and others around the Crazy Mountains is the legacy of checkerboard land ownership, which resulted from the U.S. government’s desire to incentivize westward expansion in the late 1800s.
More than 170 years ago, the federal government and the Crow Tribe signed the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. The document set aside 38 million acres of land for the Crow people, and that territory encompassed the Crazy Mountains.
Seventeen years later, the Crow were forced to cede the vast majority of that landscape, including the area that spanned the Crazy Mountains. Then, when the federal government took control of the island range, it granted every other square parcel of land to the Northern Pacific Railroad. The layout was designed to aid in the construction of a new line.
Over time, the private parcels changed hands, but the public-private “checkerboard” pattern of land ownership remained. Today, federal parcels in the Crazies are part of the Custer Gallatin National Forest, but they are intermingled with privately-owned square sections of land.
The pattern has fed longstanding access disputes between landowners who want to defend their private property rights and trail users who believe that in many cases, they have a legal right to cross private land to get to public land.
The Forest Service has slowly chipped away at the problem, in part by negotiating land trades and rerouting trails. The agency’s aim is to consolidate public land, which has the dual effect of clarifying the access rights and protecting larger swaths of habitat from development.
Last October, a coalition of landowners and conservation and sporting groups unveiled a new trail outside of Wilsall, on the west side of the Crazies.
Three months later in January, the Custer Gallatin National Forest approved a land exchange that it brokered with two ranches at the south end of the Crazies.
Then, the national forest released the draft environmental assessment for its latest — and arguably its most complex — land swap proposal to date earlier this month.
Officials want to build a 22-mile trail through the east side of the Crazies. They also want to consolidate thousands of acres of public land at higher elevations by trading out lower-elevation parcels.
Under the agreement, the national forest would give up 4,135 acres in the Crazy Mountains and Madison Mountains for 6,430 acres of private land in both ranges. Six different landowners own the properties that are up for the trade.
The Forest Service has also proposed a major trail reroute on the east side of the range. The Yellowstone Club has agreed to finance the construction of a 22-mile trail that would connect the Big Timber Creek and Sweet Grass Creek drainages.
The trail would be titled Sweet Trunk Trail (No. 274), and it would cross through public land almost entirely. It would connect with Big Timber Creek Trail (No. 119) to the south, and Sweet Grass Trail (No. 122) to the north, creating a 40-mile non-motorized and non-mechanized loop trail around the range.
Over 100 miles southwest of the Crazies, a second component of the deal ropes in the Madison Range in the Big Sky area. The Forest Service is proposing to transfer approximately 500 acres of high elevation land around Eglise Peak to the Yellowstone Club.
The club plans to use the steep cliffs it would acquire for expert ski terrain. It would put that area into a conservation easement. Lifts could be constructed, but residential development would be prohibited.
In return, the club would provide the Forest Service with 605 acres of mid-elevation meadow habitat along the Inspiration Divide Trail (No. 8), which skirts the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.
The area includes “timbered lands, open meadows and gentle to moderate topography,” and it’s in a critical wildlife corridor, the agency writes in its draft assessment. As it’s routed now, the public trail crosses through two sections of Yellowstone Club land via an easement.
As a part of the exchange, the private inholdings around the trail would become public, which would give people the right to wander off trail. A tiny segment of the 16-mile Inspiration Divide Trail (No. 8) would be rerouted so it crosses through public land.
Officials from the Custer Gallatin National Forest hosted meetings in Bozeman and Big Timber this week to discuss the proposed land swap and answer questions. More than 100 people attended the meeting in Bozeman, and they brought forward a wide range of perspectives and concerns.
Mary Erickson, supervisor of the Custer Gallatin National Forest, said there’s a lot of complexity to the proposal, but she encouraged people to read the document in its entirety. In this case, the land exchange is assembled, meaning there could be tweaks to the deal, but all portions of the negotiations would have to be approved in a package.
“Our goal has always been and always will be to protect, resolve and secure public access,” Erickson said. “But the ways through which we do that are diverse, and they have to be diverse because the situation on the ground and the complexity of each specific route and trail or road is very unique.”
Much of the controversy around access rights in the Crazies stems from the public’s reliance on historical prescriptive easements to access federal land.
Where those easements exist, people have a right to cross through private land in order to get to public land. However, for them to exist, people must use a path through private property continuously and without interruption or obtaining permission for a period of five years.
In the Crazies, many of these supposed paths are in disrepair, or they are contested by area landowners. That’s in spite of the fact that the disputed trails and roads are often marked on Forest Service maps.
Public access advocates, including members of Friends of the Crazy Mountains, believe that the Forest Service should defend easements in court rather than negotiate with landowners who obstruct access.
Erickson said that the agency has the ability to acquire easements through legal means, but it’s a long, uncertain process and is only taken on in cases where officials have a strong legal case. For the Custer Gallatin National Forest, it’s the tool of last resort.
Brad Wilson, founder of Friends of the Crazy Mountains, wrote in an email that long before the Forest Service released its draft assessment for the east side project, it supported portions of the swap, but members had concerns about the destruction of wildlife habitat in Sweet Grass Canyon, since that area would become private.
Members were also worried about the public losing access along Sweet Grass Trail (No. 122) and the East Trunk Trail, but their concerns and “easily implemented alternatives were not even considered.” The group objected to the proposal when it was presented by Western Land Group and Western Skies Strategies in 2020.
“It is important for the public to understand the Forest Service out-granted its access responsibilities in the Crazy Mountains to wealthy interests,” Wilson wrote. “The two land exchange consultants named above are paid for by Yellowstone Club and also serve as lobbyists. This is not a citizen-proposed initiative.”
The Forest Service started to have conversations with individual landowners on the east side of the Crazies several years ago, but the agency quickly realized it couldn’t tackle the access issues with a piecemeal approach, according to Erickson.
Around that time, a working group that the Crazy Mountain Stockgrowers Association originally convened began to meet with members of the Park County Environmental Council, the Montana Wildlife Federation and area residents.
That group first negotiated the reroute along the Porcupine Lowline Trail (No. 26) on the west side of the range. Later on, members turned their focus to other areas. A coalition called the Crazy Mountain Access Project eventually emerged.
While the access coalition worked through ideas on the east side of the Crazies, the Yellowstone Club approached the Custer Gallatin National Forest with a land exchange proposal in the Big Sky area.
Erickson said that the agency rejected the club’s idea multiple times, since it didn’t think the public would reap enough benefits. The club asked about other projects it could take on, and the Forest Service identified the Crazies as an area of interest.
In 2018, the Yellowstone Club hired Western Land Group to work with east-side landowners and other parties to develop a comprehensive proposal for the east side of the range.
The club started to coordinate with members of the Crazy Mountain Access Project, which gathered feedback on the concept and made some improvements, according to Erica Lighthiser, deputy director of the Park County Environmental Council.
Western Land Group officially submitted its land exchange proposal to the national forest for review in 2020, and again in 2021, the draft environmental assessment says.
Tom Glass, executive director of Western Land Group, said the Forest Service sought to obtain a property around Smeller Lake when it negotiated the the South Crazy Land Exchange, but that part of the transaction was never approved.
Crazy Mountain Ranch, which was purchased in 2021 by the Lone Mountain Land Company, owns that land. Lone Mountain Land Company and the Yellowstone Club share the same parent company — CrossHarbor Capital Partners.
This summer, the Crazy Mountain Ranch decided to add the Smeller Lake section to the overall east side exchange, which means if the deal goes through, the area will become public.
Glass said it’s a spectacular piece of property that the Forest Service has desired for a long time, and the agency put a lot of pressure on Western Land Group to get it included in the package.
Ty Ferguson, Crazy Mountain Ranch manager, said in an email that he is pleased to see that under the ownership of Lone Mountain Land Company, the ranch has offered to sell the 640-acre parcel so it can be transferred into public hands.
“The public has made it known they sought more angling access in the years of the East Side discussion, and it could only have happened with a willing owner who values their neighbors and the community,” he said.
Lighthiser said that when she saw the east Crazy land exchange proposal initially, she knew that people who hoped to walk up to Sweet Grass Canyon without obtaining permission would not get what they wanted. However, she knew the public would get more clarity.
“In my mind, it very much improves the current situation in terms of getting to a really special place,” she said.
Lorents Grosfield, a third-generation rancher who lives on the east side of the Crazies, said it took a while for members of the Crazy Mountain Working Group to trust one another, but they eventually established a good relationship and started to find middle ground.
Grosfield said that private property is private property, and disputes between landowners and sportsmen start when people believe they should be allowed to go anyplace they want.
The east side deal “will make a world of difference for what is available to the public,” he said. “You don’t necessarily get everything you want, but you get something that’s a heck of a lot better than nothing.”
John Sullivan, board chairman for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said that when people review the Forest Service’s proposal, they should weigh whether the loss of the valuable habitat along Sweet Grass Creek is worth the consolidation of public parcels and a 22-mile trail.
While there are lots of things to like about the deal, including land consolidation and solving access issues, Sullivan feels that the public is giving up too much. They are losing access along Sweet Grass Trail (No. 122), and they are losing riparian land along the canyon bottom, he said.
Sullivan said the status of Sweet Grass Trail (No. 122) is only contested because landowners put up an illegal obstruction, and when people begin to ask for permission or sign in to use public trails, those trails can cease to become public.
For many years, the Forest Service defended easements in the Crazy Mountains, but the agency’s actions changed on the ground sometime around 2016 and 2017, Sullivan said.
Such actions “send a clear signal to landowners that if you put up a gate, you won’t be punished for it, and in this deal, the landowners are going to be rewarded mightily for what their actions are,” he said.
And if that’s the signal, he said, “why wouldn’t we see this happen more and more?”
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