Weighing the costs and benefits of collaborating for public access.
If the Crazy Mountains have just one universal quality, it is confusion—regarding both land access and the “proper” way to restore it. Decades of landowner conflict and public frustration have culminated in a collaborative effort aimed at putting this issue to bed.
On the east side, nearly 9,000 acres are on the table. The proposal, in an attempt to consolidate public land, involves trading 5,205 acres of private land for 3,614 acres of Forest Service ground. Additionally, if passed, a 22-mile trail connecting Big Timber Creek with Sweet Grass Creek will be built to replace the existing and long-disputed East Trunk Trail.
This project has taken extensive cooperation by landowners, land-users, the Crow Tribal Council, and the Forest Service. But early railroad deeds suggest that prescriptive easements have existed on these lands long before this swap was proposed. If this is the case (and it is still being debated), the public already has the right to access the trails in question—and completing the exchange would undermine the environmental review process entirely.
by Erica Lighthiser, deputy director of the Park County Environmental Council
Several years ago, my husband rented the Ibex Cabin for a surprise date night in the Crazy Mountains. The grandparents babysat; it was the first time that we were away from our three young kids overnight.
We set out on the Porcupine Lowline Trail (#267), excited about how easy it was to just hike. No diapers, no kid carriers, no meltdowns. I left the map in the cabin, assuming the trail would be similar to the clearly defined Cottonwood Lake Trail we’d hiked the day before.
It wasn’t. We walked through the forest and meadow for a mile or two before the trail faded. We lost the route. Wandering around looking for a clear path, it’s likely that we were trespassing. At the time, I didn’t know anything about the checkerboard of private and public land in the Crazy Mountains; I was just going for a hike with my husband.
Flash forward six years, I know a lot more. At the Park County Environmental Council, I lead our program work in the Crazy Mountains, where our long-term conservation goal is contiguous habitat protected for its wild and sacred qualities. Resolving land-use conflict is critical.
"The more people who engage, the better the outcomes for everyone."
Several years ago, I attended a meeting with some of the local landowners at the Grand Hotel in Big Timber. It was tense, but we met each other face-to-face and decided to keep meeting thereafter. Judgements and divisions started to slowly break down. A few months in, one of the ranchers spoke, and then nearly the same words were echoed from a public-access advocate. Many of us were seeking similar things—clarity and solutions to end the conflicts.
We started calling ourselves the Crazy Mountain Working Group.
Once we identified where access was a problem, we set to work. There was that trail on the west side where I had gotten lost a few years earlier, which had several cases of trespassing. It once connected the Ibex Cabin to the Porcupine Cabin, but traveled through six miles of private land.
We pulled out the maps with the rancher whose family owned the property and discussed some potential solutions. What if part of the trail without recorded easements on private land was simply moved to the adjacent public land in exchange for permanent public easements? While walking the property, it was empowering to see another path forward: one where we get to know the people and the land, and have the chance to consider alternatives. The Forest Service agreed, and in 2019, began rerouting the trail—now called the Porcupine Ibex.
We’re trying this approach on the east side of the Crazy Mountains, which only has one uncontested public access point. The east side is a lot more complicated, with multiple landowners and even more checkerboarded private and public land.
But we are making headway.
The East Crazy Mountains and Inspiration Divide land exchange would consolidate 30 square miles of public land and reroute the contested East Trunk Trail. The proposal also includes a swap in Big Sky. This land exchange will soon be submitted to the Forest Service, at which time the public will have another opportunity to comment. We hope you participate. The more people who engage, the better the outcomes for everyone.
While some have chosen to sue the Forest Service over access issues, the benefits of working together are evident.
Last summer, we teamed up with two other families on a backpacking adventure at Porcupine Trailhead. We hiked the newly constructed trail to Elk Creek and overnighted at Campfire Lake. The trail was easy to follow, designed to take in the panoramic views of Shields Valley. It was a joy to hike. You should check it out and see for yourself.
This summer, the entire route from Ibex to Porcupine will be complete. My husband and I will have another go at that hike.
According to the Easement
by Kathryn QannaYahu Kern, founder of Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife & Habitat
Even after spending time in the Swiss Alps, a guest at Paul Van Cleve’s Lazy K Bar dude ranch on the east side of the Crazy Mountains stated that “nowhere had he been given a greater thrill than in going over the divide between Big Timber and Sweet Grass creeks.”
The guest’s account was recorded on August 30, 1934, in the Park County News. “Crazy Mountain Range Can Be Made the Alps of America,” it goes on to state, “But few local people, who can look out and see the Crazies on any clear day, realize that the small range of mountains… is packed with more real honest to goodness out of doors than any other similar spot.” While not having been to the Swiss Alps, I’ve hiked and documented the Crazies for public-lands access obstruction since 2014. I can attest to the glorious beauty of the Crazies.
The Crazy Mountain Forest Reserve was established by the U.S. Forest Service on August 10, 1906. It became a National Forest in 1907. That 1934 article also relayed the Forest Service improving 22 miles of Forest Service trails between the Big Timber and Sweet Grass creeks, part of a pre-existing trail system from the Crow Nation. “Campground improvement this year has resulted in good camping spots, well equipped, accessible by car, on Big Timber and Sweet Grass creeks.” The USFS didn’t just improve trails and campgrounds, they developed a program for conservation of game and resources.
For Van Cleve, the increased access and enjoyment of public lands became a threat to his privatizing of the east side of the Crazies. In 1940, Van Cleve, an outfitter, put locks on the gates during hunting season, continuing afterward. He threatened the USFS with rocks and a gun, when they were maintaining the public road. After a courtroom battle, the Forest Service received easements. The east-side trails, especially Sweet Grass #122 and East Trunk Trail # 115, newly named #136, have been a source of ongoing contention for over 80 years.
Documentation I received through many Freedom of Information Act requests and historical research I conducted verify the over 100-year historical prescriptive easements and the Forest Service defense of these trails. These records include county clerk and recorder Railroad Grant deeds with public-access language such as, “the land hereby conveyed, being subject, however, to an easement in the public for any public roads (legal language includes trails) heretofore laid out or established, and now existing over and across any part of the premises.”
"The USFS didn’t just improve trails and campgrounds, they developed a program for conservation of game and resources."
Previously, the USFS staunchly defended our access to these public trails. Something changed in 2017, at the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, including the removal of District Ranger, Alex Sienkiewicz, for doing his duty, which included maintaining public access in the Crazies. They have not defended our public trails since. The USFS has worked with a landowner working group, pursued land exchanges and trail reroutes at much steeper elevations, which would severely limit the public’s access and enjoyment. To add to the confusion, the Yellowstone Club has now gotten involved in the east-side trail debacle.
Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife & Habitat, along with Friends of the Crazy Mountains, the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, and Skyline Sportsmen, filed a lawsuit in 2018, fighting for the historical east side Sweet Grass #122 and East Trunk #115/136 trails, in addition to the west side trails.
The public deserves their historic access restored in the Crazy Mountains, so they too, can enjoy their “Alps of America.”