MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) — Some say collaboration is the way to solve complicated public land issues. But in Montana’s Crazy Mountains, both collaborators and outsiders are questioning the intent and timing of a proposed public-private land swap.
After the public comment period closed on Dec. 23 for the “East Crazy Inspiration Divide Land Exchange,” the 1,060 comments submitted online appear to show that a majority of the public does not support the exchange as proposed.
The Custer-Gallatin National Forest’s online summary says it would exchange about 4,135 acres of public land for 6,430 acres of private land to consolidate more of the public land in the Crazy Mountains of central Montana. While that sounds like a win for the public, the devil is in the details according to Montana conservationist Andrew Posewitz.
While the U.S. Forest Service oversees most of the Crazy Mountains, its management has been complicated by several sections of private land woven among the public land. In the latter 19th century, the federal government gave the sections away to encourage railroads and settlers to move west, ignorant of the public-land headaches that would result more than a century later.
In several parts of the West, current maps look like a checkerboard of public and private land, each section containing 640 acres. But in the Crazy Mountains, it seems more a game of chess than checkers where certain moves to consolidate public land might belie the endgame.
The Crazy Mountains used to be a remote region visited mainly by a smattering of locals for hiking, hunting and fishing. But in recent decades, as nearby Bozeman has grown in popularity, prosperity and population, new landowners have moved in and barred roads and trails to lock people out of public land, prompting resentment.
The Forest Service is supposed to defend existing public access to its lands. That’s especially important in places like the Crazy Mountains where access is limited to begin with. But starting about five years ago, the Custer-Gallatin National Forest stopped taking the illegal barriers down.
That prompted local hunter Brad Wilson to form Friends of the Crazy Mountains to defend public access. In the meantime, people like Bozeman hunter Rob Gregoire, who tried to travel the roads and trails he’d used before, were cited for trespassing.
Public frustration built to the point that in 2019, four Montana conservation groups including Friends of the Crazy Mountains and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers sued the Forest Service for not protecting prescriptive easements across private land to keep four trails open.
That same year, at the prompting of the Forest Service, the Yellowstone Club and some landowners started hatching a plan to consolidate lands in the eastern portion of the Crazy Mountains. Another group of landowners was already working on land swaps along the southern edge of the mountains, most of which were finalized in May 2021.
More than 100 miles from the Crazy Mountains, the Yellowstone Club is a gated community at Big Sky that has catered to the rich and powerful for about two decades, including political heavy-hitters like former vice presidents Dan Quayle and Dick Cheney and former U.S. Representative Jack Kemp.
At first, the Yellowstone Club only wanted more national forest land near Big Sky for ski runs. In exchange, it hired the Western Land Group, a consulting company, to come up with some land exchanges along the east edge of the Crazy Mountains and offered to build a 22-mile trail to replace the four being contested. Then about a year ago, Yellowstone Club owner CrossHarbor Capital Partners bought the Crazy Mountain Ranch, giving it more interest in the land swap. Yellowstone Club member David Leuschen, former partner at Goldman Sachs, bought his Switchback Ranch in the Crazy Mountains in 2012. Sections from both ranches are part of the trade.