By Michael Wright - October 30, 2019 - Originally published in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle
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.