The Schmidt Land Conservation Deal

Tom Kalakay first began scoping Rocky Canyon for its climbing potential 20 years ago. He initially dismissed the broken limestone crags a few miles east of Bozeman as “a pile of crap,” but soon discovered it had potential as a sport climbing area. And with convenient freeway access, no less.

This spot, located on the north side of Interstate 90 just east of Bear Canyon, has since been developed into a veritable outdoor climbing gym with about 50 routes, mostly bolted one-pitch lines rated between 5.8 and 5.12. And all of them are on private land owned by Shirley and Hugo Schmidt, who bought the land in 1964. The family has been generous enough to allow use by Bozeman climbers, whose vehicles often crowd a pullout just off a bend in the freeway. If a complicated land conservation deal succeeds, this spot will come under public ownership in an arrangement that is hoped to resolve safety and legal issues surrounding climbing access.

But more importantly, this deal will conserve the Schmidts' 2,055 acres, a highly visible swath of land straddling the highway, and will enable the construction of a trailhead near the Trail Creek exit that will serve a new trail up the backside of Chestnut Mountain. Besides its recreational value, this terrain provides wildlife habitat linking the Bridger and Gallatin ranges and an undeveloped viewshed at the city's eastern gateway.

"It’s the heart and soul of the most threatened wildlife corridor in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem," says the Trust for Public Land's Alex Diekmann, who is helping broker the deal along with the Gallatin Valley Land Trust (GVLT). "The best projects are ones that have everything."

Several moving parts must fall together for the deal to succeed. Here are the main components:

Some 1,240 acres of rolling open terrain north of the freeway will be protected by a conservation easement financed with an $800,000 contribution from the county Open Space Fund.
•The Schmidts will donate the 175-acre chunk of land favored by climbers to the Gallatin National Forest (GNF).
•Federal funds to the tune of $2.25 million will purchase the Schmidt’s 640 acres on the south side of the freeway (a one-square-mile block of steep land known as Section 29) for inclusion into the GNF.

This third part, which will provide access to the distinctive formation called Frog Rock, may prove to be the most vulnerable because it requires Montana’s congressional delegation to tag the project for funding under the Land and Water Conservation Fund. So get on the horn to our men in Washington if you want to protect the assets that make Bozeman such a haven for outdoor sports. (Go to to learn more.)

"It's all a package deal. If any one piece falls through, the rest of it falls through,” says Ted Lange of GVLT. In that unhappy scenario, climbers could lose access to Rocky Canyon should the Schmidts eventually sell the land to less-accommodating owners.

In September 1987, Kalakay, a geology professor, and Tom Jungst put up the canyon's first route, a bolt-protected line they dubbed Ethos Burned. "That was Tom’s idea, like we were throwing away our ethics," says Kalakay. Tom and other climbers stopped worrying about ethics and bolted dozens of routes over the years. Many of these routes earned rail-themed names, such as Fright Train and Four-Engine Effort, because of the proximity to the tracks. If the Schmidt land deal goes through, this patch of Bozeman's recreational heritage will be preserved—along with undisturbed views, wildlife corridors, and much, much more.

Neighbors Pony Up to Save a Slice of Bozeman Creek

Not every worthwhile land-conservation project covers hundreds of acres out in the boonies. Some involve less than acre in the heart of town.

Christine Yearley is leading an effort to save such a patch of Bozeman between the town's namesake creek and the Gallagator Trail. The 3/4-acre parcel just north of Story Street was being measured for a duplex when Yearley, the felinophile founder of the Cateye Café, talked the Bonn family into selling their land to her instead of developers. A former site of an ice-pond operation, this land is a trailside grove of cottonwood and birch trees, one of which is growing through a set of box springs.

"Last spring when I saw an architect and a contractor I know on the land, that's when I panicked," says Yearley, who lives next door in the Bonner Avenue townhomes with her five cats. "Everybody assumes it's public because it's already used as parkland. There's tons of swimmers and dogs."

Sure, Yearley and her neighbors have a huge stake in the land's conservation, but so does everyone who strolls the Gallagator, especially dog owners. If the land is developed, we'll lose access to the town's finest dog-watering hole, which is formed by a diversion gate on Bozeman Creek.

After settling on a $150,000 price, Yearley agreed to pay the Bonns a one-third down payment by June 15. With a month to go, she had pledges from her neighbors totaling $40,000. She has two more years to come up with the remaining $100,000 plus interest. The Gallatin Valley Land Trust hopes to secure grants to finance the rest of the deal and make arrangements to incorporate the land into the city's park system.

To contribute to the Bonn Property Benefit Fund, contact Christine Yearley at 587-8655. Donors will be refunded if the deal fails.