Cliff for meadow and a public trail through the Crazy Mountains
Yellowstone Club works toward land exchange
From the beginning, Yellowstone Club skiers have been eyeing a cliff band of expert-level terrain adjacent to the club and thought, “If only…” However, that 500 acre stretch of land has been untouchable – owned by the United States Forest Service.
Yellowstone Club’s Vice President of Development Mike DuCuennois explained during the Big Sky open house that the club presented a proposal to the Forest Service a few years ago: those 500 acres of ski terrain restricted by a conservation easement for 558 acres of mid-elevation private land east of Cedar Mountain bordering two miles of Inspiration Divide Trail #8, which extends off of Buck Ridge.
“There’s this notion in land exchanges… they get stereotyped and some of it is true. A lot of times people will come in to exchange cliffs and alpine country for prime riverbottom. That’s not a fair trade to the public. This is the opposite of that,” he said, pointing on a map. “This is rocks and ice, this is nothing but a cliff band, and this is as beautiful a meadow as you can find in Montana. So, this is the inverse of the stereotype.”
The Madison Range land swap was not compelling enough on its own; a high public interest project needed to be included. The area in need of the most help: The Crazy Mountains.
A deep dive into the issues and many conversations led to the creation of The East Crazy Mountains and Inspiration Divide Public Access Improvement Land Exchange. The Crazy Mountains Access Project – a coalition of ranchers, conservationists, tribal representatives and hunters – was later launched to support that effort.
Decades of tension between ranchers, the Forest Service and public access groups culminated into a lawsuit.
“This trail here (he gestured to East Trunk Trail on a large map) has been on Forest Service maps for 80 years and the landowners in here got tired of trespassers leaving Forest Service land and coming into their ranches. So, they looked into it and they figured-out that [there were no] easements going through there. So, they shut the trail down and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers has an active complaint against the Forest Service for not pursuing this right on this trail,” he explained.
That group argues that the trail does exist and is falling back on old railroad easements in its stance.
“How do you clean that up? You can sit and litigate this for 10 years, and spend a bunch of money with lawyers or just try to solve it in a better way for the public. This plan puts a trail on Forest Service land 100% of the way, which to date the Crazies doesn’t have,” he said.
In other words, move the trail.
Two years of manpower, expertise, administrative work, appraisals, title work, wetland studies and the design for the new trail means that the YC has already invested roughly $400,000 into this possibility, DuCuennois explained. If the effort progresses, another $1 million will be invested for the new 22-mile trail that will connect Half Moon Campground to an existing trail along Sweet Grass Creek.
“You can see on the front side that yeah Yellowstone Club just wanted this land swap, but the more you get engrossed in the conflicts in The Crazies, the more you want to be a part of solving them – to me, personally,” he said. A contiguous block of land in a place famous for conflicts from checkerboarding –the back and forth between public and private land – would mean real progress for public interest.
“We have an opportunity to create this block in the middle of a mountain range that is going to be for all the public to use without worrying about crossing over somebody’s private property,” he said. This proposal, if approved, would mean a gain of 1,566 acres of more consolidated public land for a total of 5,205 acres and about 30 square miles. The agreement for land consolidation and the trail exists entirely between the landowners and the YC.
Round table discussions happened monthly between interest groups, ranchers and YC representatives.
“There are four families here and they are third and fourth generation ranchers of Montana. Aligning them is difficult. That’s why the Forest Service and everybody else has struggled for so long,” he said. “Everybody had a different take on how it should go. It took a lot of administrative wherewithal to gather everybody and sit down at the table and put the past behind and try to move forward collectively as a group – and it worked out well.”
DuCuennois was a part of the negotiations every step of the way – bridging personalities and helping them find a way forward.
“It wasn’t convincing anybody, it was just understanding what everybody wanted out of the deal, whether public access or consolidating,” he said. “The one common thread to all these people – they all love the Crazy Mountains. They’re all super passionate about them, they will tear up talking about them. Their kids were married there, and generations have been ranching there. It’s not an anti-access group, it’s a group that just really wants to have a solid solution that is going to be here forever that they can hang their hat on and understand how it works.”
This effort is also a huge deal for the Crow Tribe.
The section that contains Crazy Peak will be put into a conservation easement if the land exchange is performed and the Crow Tribe will have unlimited access to the top of Crazy Peak whenever they want. According University of Montana Professor Rick Graetz, the Crazies are significant to the tribe because in 1847 the great Chief Plenty Coup climbed Crazy Peak on a vision quest that he “might properly lead and guide his people.”
“The Asaalooke Nation urges you to move forward with this proposal to benefit not only citizens of the local area, but to Montana and its visitors and users of our public lands,” the Crow Tribe Executive Council said in a press release.
Erica Lighthiser, with Park County Environmental Counsel said it took a tremendous amount of technical expertise in pulling [The Crazies proposal] together. “And just the trail routing and the easements and appraisals and there has been a lot of background research that has gotten us to the point that it could even be presented on paper,” she said. “The parties at the table want to make this the best deal possible for the public, so I hope people engage in the process and provide comments.”
A formal proposal – incorporating public feedback – will be submitted to the Forest Service and Montana’s Congressional delegation later this summer.