By Brett French - August 31, 2020 - Originally published in the Billings Gazette
Citing concerns about giving up access via historic forest trails, a Montana-based hunting group is encouraging its members to challenge a proposed land swap on the east side of the Crazy Mountains.
“We don’t believe abandoning two trails for one solves the problem,” said John Sullivan, Montana Backcountry Hunters & Anglers board chairman.
Sullivan sent an email to BHA’s 3,000 Montana members on Thursday detailing the group’s concerns. He said in a phone interview that the call to arms arose out of apprehension that the coalition advocating for the land exchange is seeking to avoid a public process by going directly to Montana's congressional delegation for approval.
“If they’re doing that, we want our membership to know and our delegation to know that we want it to go through the public process,” Sullivan said.
Members of the Crazy Mountain Working Group unveiled their proposed land exchange in mid-July. The group includes local landowners, as well as representatives of the Park County Environmental Council, the Montana Wildlife Federation, the Crow Tribe and the Yellowstone Club.
The proposal would give the Custer Gallatin National Forest 5,025 acres of private inholdings in the Crazy Mountains in exchange for 3,614 acres of forest lands. The trade would remove some of the private land inholdings in the mountain range providing the public with 30 square miles of contiguous public land between Big Timber Creek and Sweet Grass Creek. In exchange, landowners would acquire lower elevation forest parcels.
The other half of the exchange involves the exclusive Yellowstone Club in Big Sky. The club is seeking 500 acres of high elevation forest terrain for its skiers in exchange for 558 acres of land along the nearby Inspiration Divide Trail, which accesses the east side of Cedar Mountain in the Madison Range.
To incentivize the trade, the Yellowstone Club is also offering to finance the construction of a 22-mile trail in the Crazies that would connect Big Timber Creek — the only undisputed public access point on the east side — with Sweet Grass Creek. Connecting the two drainages would tie into existing trails to create a 40-mile loop route. The club has also offered to expand the parking area at the trailhead near Half Moon Campground.
The coalition has held open houses regarding its proposal to provide information to the public in the region. It is also taking public comments on the project through the end of August.
"We have actively sought input from all groups, extended our comment period, and have held four in-person open houses which has resulted in productive, grassroots participation in this process," said Erica Lighthiser, of the PCEC, in an email. "There have been several helpful suggestions that we will incorporate or address in the next draft of the proposal. After feedback has been considered, we will formally submit the proposal to the Forest Service for further review."
The Montana Wildlife Federation, an umbrella organization for state hunting and wildlife groups, has had one of its member at the table during the negotiations and supports putting the deal through the Forest Service’s public environmental process as a starting point for discussions, said Nick Gevock, conservation director for the group.
In return for their allegiance, Gevock said MWF made demands of the coalition including: no shrinkage of the Forest Service boundary; any lands that leave public ownership must have an easement preventing development; a first right of refusal to buy any parcels that are exchanged if they are put on the market; and nothing should affect ongoing litigation regarding public access via historic Forest Service trails.
“I will say we strongly encourage the public to weigh in on this,” he said.
“Our long-term goal is to acquire all of those inholdings of private lands in the Crazies,” Gevock added. “We saw this as the beginning, not the end.”
The Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers cites several concerns about the working group’s proposal. They include:
- The public is giving up much better wildlife habitat at lower elevations for higher elevation interior lands of lesser value to wildlife and therefore to hunters.
- The new trail proposed to start at Big Timber Canyon is 22 miles from Sweet Grass Canyon, much farther than the current — albeit contested — route that starts at the mouth of Sweet Grass Canyon.
“It’s the view of the Forest Service and us that (the Sweet Grass Canyon trail) is a public trail,” Sullivan said.
He pointed to a 2015 letter from Custer Gallatin National Forest supervisor Mary Erickson to Sen. Steve Daines as proof. In the letter, Erickson writes that the “Forest Service maintains that it holds unperfected prescriptive rights” to the trail up the canyon and from Big Timber Canyon to Sweet Grass “based on a history of maintenance with public funds and historic and continued public and administrative use.”
Without some assurance of unrestricted access to Sweet Grass Canyon via the historic trail, Sullivan said his group can’t support the coalition’s proposed land swap.
Access to the east side of the Crazy Mountains has long been contested by landowners who feel they've been unfairly treated by public access advocates and the Forest Service. An old trail circled the mountains as part of a route forest rangers used to patrol the area up until the 1950s. When the trail fell into disrepair and new landowners moved in, the route’s legality across private land was challenged.