[East side, Crazy Mountains of Montana]
Change is coming to what I think is Montana’s most alluring “island” mountain range, the Crazy Mountains. It’s about to become the latest in a long, tortured history of celebrity destinations dotting the American West. As the success of Big Sky ski resort, the Yellowstone Club, and Moonlight Basin (northwest of Yellowstone National Park) have demonstrated, there is plenty more opportunity here in Southwest Montana if you’ve got deep pockets and high-level political connections in Washington, D.C.
Hikers and hunters have been battling the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to maintain access to public lands for decades. Local ranchers have been illegally posting “no trespassing” signs to keep hunters and hikers out of their backyard, and off their private land. But the ownership pattern is complicated in a “checkerboard” of private and public sections (640 acres, or 1 square mile, per section) that originated when the railroad was given title to every other section. Under the Union Pacific Act of 1862, Congress granted every other section along the railroad – in one square mile blocks — to Union Pacific and retained the alternate sections as federal government lands.
Until 2017, federal agencies were consistently maintaining public trails, and preserving public access as a matter or policy. The controversy came to a head recently in a lawsuit filed by hunting and access non-profit groups fed up with landowners’ intransigence and constant harassment of random hikers using the historic access in existence for over 100 years. During the lawsuit proceedings, the federal agencies reversed its position, and sided with the sheep and cattle ranchers. The federal court judge sided with defendants, against Montana citizens and out-of-state recreationists who have enjoyed public access as much as the locals.
The following is taken from an opinion piece by Brad WIlson, founder of Friends of the Crazy Mountains, titled Forest Service Policy Shift Bodes iLL for Crazy Mountains and Elsewhere:
To celebrate Judge Timothy Cavan’s ruling is to ignore the following facts, none of which are in dispute, and all of which were on display in court. The four trails in question were built and maintained with public dollars and appeared on USFS maps. These trails were enjoyed by the public for nearly 100 years. The trails were designated by the USFS as public without restriction in their travel plans which were successfully defended in court against these same landowners. The USFS maintained this position until 2017, when they simply stopped defending the trails and suspended the ranger who was removing the illegal obstructions (the USFS’ words, not mine) all on behalf of Montana’s citizens.
The Forest Service is now defending the federal judge’s decision to dismiss the 2019 lawsuit by public-interest groups that accused the agency of failing to protect access to a section of Montana’s Crazy Mountains. Plaintiffs have argued that the Forest Service is required to protect public access to the following four historically maintained trails managed by the Custer-Gallatin National Forest: Porcupine Lowline, Elk Creek, Sweet Grass and East Trunk. Private landowners now have support of the federal government to construct and maintain gates with “no trespassing” signs prohibiting public access across their land.
To further complicate the mess created by the government’s abandonment of public access, there are credible rumors floating about that the 18,000-acre Crazy Mountain Ranch (known to most locals as the Marlboro Ranch) in the southern Crazies may be under new ownership to the same outfit that owns the Yellowstone Club – CrossHarbor Capital Partners – who operate adjacent to Big Sky.
CrossHarbor, a commercial investment firm with particular expertise in purchasing distressed properties, bought the Yellowstone Club in bankruptcy court in 2009.Within six years, the Boston-based buyers had created what CrossHarbor co-founder Sam Byrne described as “the most successful residential resort subdivision in the country, if not the world,” where properties sell for between $2,500 and $3,000 a square foot.
Back in 2012, David Leuschen, an energy magnate and Yellowstone Club member who made Forbes’ 2013 list of top dealmakers, purchased the Lazy K Bar Ranch, which had been the first dude ranch in the Crazies, and renamed it Switchback Ranch, establishing consistency with another property he owns in Cody, Wyoming. Switchback Ranch includes 15 square-mile sections within the Forest Service boundary, several of which exceed 8,000 feet in elevation. None of the sections share a boundary, so the ownership pattern is classic checkerboard.
My interest is in protecting wildlife habitat and large landscapes for wide-roaming species that are most impacted by habitat fragmentation and motorized uses that displace wildlife from their historic range. There is a “checkerboard effect” on wildlife. For example: If you walk in a straight line through checkered landscapes you would cross a boundary between private and public sections roughly every 20 minutes. A grizzly bear’s range can be up to 500 square miles, crossing these ownership boundaries with different management emphasis and different legal standards under the provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act. As a wildlife advocate, just how does one compromise away the ability of wildlife to persist? Hasn’t wildlife habitat and their very existence been compromised enough? Dare we ever say, “no” to neoliberal fantasies of deregulation and objectification of nature to the extent that everything is a transaction, or simple arrangement/contract between a buyer and seller in a so-called “free market?” I suppose we have “The Enlightenment” to thank for the inhumane conditions we have been conditioned to accept as a modern, “civilized” society.
The above was written by Steve Kelly, a lifelong advocate for open space, wilderness, and protection of wildlife, especially endangered species. The words below are from me, Mark Tokarski, as Steve and I agreed to work jointly on this piece.
First, non-Montanan readers might not be familiar with the Crazy Mountains. The area circled in red on the map to the side here gives the approximate location. On a normal map, those mountains would be north of Big Timber, Montana, about halfway between Bozeman to the west and Billings to the east. Montana is a huge state, the fourth largest after Alaska, Texas, and California. It has a population of about 1.1 million people, just slightly larger than that of Austin, Texas.
Steve has long referred to Montana as a “resource colony,” that is, the people of Montana do not get much benefit from vast reserves of copper, coal, natural gas and timber. Those resources are mined by large out-of-state concerns, and that is where profits from their development go as well. However, Montanans (I am still one at heart, having lived there for the first 59 years of my life) have always had access to National Forests and wilderness areas, along with rivers, streams and lakes. The Cavan ruling (since affirmed by a higher court judge) threatens that. For instance, areas in southwestern Montana have long been taken over by wealthy concerns. Places like Big Sky Resort, including Moonlight Basin, and the Yellowstone Club are exclusive playgrounds and residences for the wealthy. Our fear is that this court ruling will take the Crazies down that same path.
I grew up in Billings, and later moved to Bozeman, Montana. I spent a lot of time hiking and camping the Crazies. I took my kids there, and led hikes to Blue, Thunder and Granite lakes on behalf of the former Montana Wilderness Association. The idea behind MWA hikes was to get people into these areas, and get them to take ownership. The court ruling has effectively given de facto ownership of public lands within the Crazies to private landholders within the area. That, to me, is a reverse “taking”, or seizure of public lands by private interests, and without just compensation.
My wife and I traversed the range in the early 2000s. It was something like a 25 mile hike, and we camped two nights. The first night we heard snorting, and lay still as a bear passed through our camp. He was after our food, which, per Forest Service advice, I had hung from a tree ten feet out from the trunk and ten feet up in the air. The next morning we saw many footprints beneath the food, which was still intact. (We laughed that the wall of our tent had protected us.)
The following day we summited the high points, and made our way down to Moose Lake, which was on private property. We were allowed to hike through there, but not camp. A huge storm passed through, and I fired up my camp stove as we stood under a tree and made Lipton chicken noodle soup. Not a big deal, just one of those memories associated with taste and comfort that lingers on for years.
That night we stayed at Campfire Lake, a place where many people camp, and where, consequently, there is lots of salt available from human urination. Mountain goats come down at night to eat sand, gravel and grass and get their fix of salt. We heard them outside our tent the entire night.
[Map showing approximate locations of closed trails. Closing them effectively locks the public out of all public land, the green squares.]
I have many fond memories of the Crazy Mountains, and am very upset that this judge arbitrarily shut down four trailheads. (There are only three arrows on the map above, as the arrow upper left points at a junction where two trails begin.) As I recall from my school days, there is such a thing as easement, wherein if you as a property owner fail to assert your ownership rights for a period of time, say, like, 100 years, by allowing the public to pass over private land that stands between tracts of public land, the easement becomes permanent. Judge Cavan has thrown out this centuries-long tradition from English Common Law. True, Common Law is not statutory law, but is an American as well as British tradition. It is my opinion that Cavan has legislated from the bench, and is an activist judge. He claims he had no choice but to rule as he did. I doubt it.
There is talk of an appeal of the court decision. For right now, permanent barriers are being erected, and the public has been kicked off of public lands. It could be that current generations are not as active in the outdoors as were we baby boomers. It could be that with the shrinking of our age group and due to our aging, places like the Crazies have lost an important part of their constituency. If true, it is true everywhere, and a long tradition of outdoor activity in our common lands is endangered.
The postcard below is one I made and had printed and distributed in around 1994. The slogan “Keep Public Lands in Public Hands” became widely used. I should have copyrighted it. The photos were taken by my brother, and I was able to use equipment owned by a Billings campground company, KOA, to blend them. (Technology was not well advanced at that time. It took an expert to do it as I sat and watched.) Also, at that time, Montana Wilderness Association, lower right of the card, stood for something besides collaboration and playing nicey nice. They are now an industry front group, completely comprised of eunuchs parading “Don’t be nasty now!” banners. What the new managers of MWA (now called “Wild Montana”, getting rid of the word “wilderness”) did took nothing more than cowardice. That feature of the human animal is always in abundant evidence.