Proposal would consolidate public land and preserve tribal, recreational access
By Jack Reaney STAFF WRITER
A proposed land exchange would allow permanent public access and improved trail connectivity in the eastern Crazy Mountains, where a checkerboard of private land—first federally granted in alternating square-mile plots in the 19th century—has caused years of access disputes and legal conflict. The land swap would also involve two miles of the Inspiration Divide trail near Big Sky where it currently crosses Yellowstone Club property.
The U.S. Forest Service (Custer-Gallatin National Forest) issued a press release announcing the long-discussed proposal on Nov. 9, opening a 45-day period for public comment on the preliminary environmental assessment.
The online portal for public comment will remain open until midnight on Dec. 23. Public meetings are scheduled in Bozeman on Nov. 15, from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. at the Commons at Baxter and Love and in Big Timber on Nov. 16, from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. at Big Timber Elementary School.
In the Crazies, the Forest Service would exchange about 4,135 forest acres for 6,430 acres of private land mostly at high elevation that allows for trail improvements in the Crazies. Among the improvements are a connector between Big Timber Canyon and upper Sweetgrass Canyon and 22 miles of trail to complete a loop around the Crazies and allow public access to Smeller Lake.
In a press conference, Custer Gallatin Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson expressed her desire that the public “take a hard look at [the] documents” to avoid disinformation. By reading the preliminary environmental assessment, she hopes the public will respond with informed questions and comments and attend the public meetings.
“There’s some pretty wild rumors out there,” Erickson said, including one about the YC’s involvement. She said she’s heard concerns about a possible ski resort development in the Crazy Mountains.
“The Yellowstone Club is helping facilitate an assembled land exchange. They would acquire property in exchange for federal lands only in the Big Sky area,” Erickson said, pointing out that the exchanged land in the Crazies will remain under ownership of the six involved ranchers.
The Yellowstone Club has hired land exchange consultants and would pay for trail construction in the Crazies, according to a 2021 report from the Montana Free Press.
“As a life-long Montanan and an avid outdoorsman, I know the significant role that our public lands play in our way of life and local economies,” YC executive Mike DuCuennois wrote in a statement to EBS. “This land exchange is about improving access to quality public lands in both the Crazy Mountains and the Madison Range.”
While supporting the exchange in the Crazies, the YC offered 600 acres to the Forest Service to improve Big Sky’s public-access Inspiration Divide trail where it crosses that private land. In exchange, YC would receive 500 acres of Forest Service land adjacent to their property to develop lift-access expert ski terrain.
The land exchange was facilitated in part by the Crazy Mountain Access Project, a coalition of ranchers, conservationists and hunters that was formed in 2019. DuCuennois is a member of the project.
Erica Lighthiser, member of the coalition and deputy director of the Park County Environmental Council, noted in a release about the proposal the long-term importance of consolidating public land in a checkered landscape vulnerable to development.
“The improved public land consolidation in this land exchange will not only clarify where the public has legal access, but will allow the U.S. Forest Service to better protect and steward the wildlife habitat and important cultural sites in the Crazy Mountains,” Lighthiser stated in the PCEC press release.
The Crazy Mountains also have spiritual significance to the Crow tribe, among others, but private land ownership has complicated their modern-day access.
“This Crazy Mountain Land Exchange is an important agreement negotiated by local Montanans, and it deserves [public] support because it is a win-win for both public and private landowners and settles decades of conflict around access to the mountains,” Dr. Shayne Doyle, Apsáalooke (Crow) and a member of the Crazy Mountain Access Project, stated in the release.
“As one of Montana’s most iconic and centrally located island mountain ranges, they’ve been locked up and off-limits on the east side for long enough,” Doyle stated. “It’s time to move forward with this plan that will connect people to one of our state’s greatest treasures—the sacred Crazy Mountains.”
Written public comments may also be submitted by mail to ATTN: Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson, PO Box 130, Bozeman, MT 59771