An island range patterned with checkerboard land ownership, the Crazy Mountains are the backdrop to one of the most “vexing” land-use debates in the state. Crow Indians, the Northern Pacific Railroad, the U.S. Forest Service, ranchers, recreationists and politicians have all claimed ownership in parts of the Crazy Mountains at various times, seeding more than a century of access and land-use disputes that continue to this day. Between an active lawsuit, two land-swap proposals winding through Forest Service administrative channels, and pending development of some of the largest private properties in the foothills of the Crazies, the future of one of the state’s most iconic and disputed landscapes is playing out now. Today we publish Part I of a three-part series exploring the past, present and future of Montana’s Crazy Mountains.
The Crazy Mountains rise out of central Montana as if they’ve been pushed through a cut in the sagebrush-covered earth. An island mountain chain running north and south, this landscape once described as the “Swiss Alps of the United States” is home to mountain goats and golden trout, wolverine and grizzly bears — and one of the most vexing access and land-use debates in the state.
Long before the Northern Pacific Railroad steamed across the West, Crow Indians made regular trips into the Crazies, which are so steep and rocky as to be borderline inhospitable. Other tribes would not follow them into the range, it was said, because they believed it to be almost supernaturally powerful for the Crow. “They say there was just so much medicine spirits up there, so much spiritual force,” says Shane Doyle, a Crow performing artist and educator who’s been active in discussions about the future of the mountains. “That’s where the name Crazy comes from — it’s a spiritual name, really.” The range still figures prominently in the Crow spiritual landscape.
When he was just a boy, Chief Plenty Coups went into the Crazies to pray and fast. While there he dreamt of bison being replaced with cattle. He saw the land change under the settlers’ influence and a great storm descend upon an ancient forest, destroying all but a single tree with a chickadee in it. When Plenty Coups came down from the mountains, Crow elders interpreted the dream, understanding it to mean that fighting the white man’s presence would end in the death of many Crow Indians.
“The dreams the Crow Indians received there during the 1850s and 1860s were very important for the Crow-white relations in the Yellowstone Valley and in Bozeman. Those relations were always good — peaceful, beneficial,” he said. “The Crow Indians could have waged a war against the settlers and it would have been bad. It could have been really bloody.”
In 1851 the U.S. government entered an agreement with the Crow establishing the Crow Reservation boundary, largely along rivers, encompassing 38 million acres stretching from the headwaters of the Yellowstone River to the Powder River Basin. The Crazy Mountains fell within the boundaries described by the Fort Laramie Treaty, but by 1868, 30 million acres had been stripped away: the Crazy Mountains belonged to the Crow Tribe — in name at least — no longer.
By that time tentacles of railroad were spreading into the western United States. In order to incentivize railroad companies to invest in new lines, the U.S. government gave alternating square-mile sections to railroad companies, creating a checkerboard pattern of ownership that continues to vex land managers, private property owners and members of the recreating public more than a century later.
About the time the U.S. government was deeding land in the Crazies to the railroad, Brad Wilson’s predecessors settled on Smith Creek in the Upper Shields Valley. His great-great-uncle owned a ranch accessed by a dirt two-track. His grandfather was a tender for hunting camps and sheep outfits and ran a bit of moonshine during Prohibition. Thinking about his childhood in the mountains makes Wilson a little wistful these days. “I wish I could go back now and know what was coming and prepare for all of it,” he says.
The “all of it” he’s referring to is the loss of access to trails he’s used for the better part of his life, frustration with the Forest Service’s unwillingness to fight for them that’s boiled over into a lawsuit, and the rising pressure of human presence that threatens to displace the wildlife that make a home in such stunningly rugged environs.
Wilson, who lives in Wilsall, a small town of 337 a dozen miles west of the range, says he was basically raised in the Crazies. He’s backpacked and hunted in them and he long ago introduced his own kids to them. He and his kids spotted an elusive wolverine in the north Crazies during one trip; on another outing, he watched a Canada lynx sun itself on a rock during a fall hunt. In one breath he describes the extreme conditions he’s endured with his children and the ominous 11,000-foot peaks that care not a whit for the feeble or ill-prepared. In the next he says, “Wow, what a treasure we have,” and frets at habitat loss spurred by the public’s increasing interest in the area. But it would be hard to fault anyone for being drawn in by the mountains’ fierce beauty. “You go into the Crazy Mountains and there’s a presence about them I can’t explain,” Wilson says. “It’s almost mystical.”
Wilson served as deputy sheriff until 1988, when an unsuccessful bid for Park County sheriff led him to pursue a position as assistant road supervisor for the county. In 2015, looking for a way to give back to his community and get into shape, he offered to assemble a group of people to spend a summer doing trail maintenance on the Porcupine Lowline Trail, an 11-mile path between two Forest Service guard stations that he’d frequented on backpacking and hunting trips. Alex Sienkiewicz, the Yellowstone district ranger on the Custer Gallatin National Forest, was excited about it, too, Wilson said.
But all of a sudden, it was off. Wilson was informed that not only would he not be working on the trail, he was no longer welcome at meetings where the Forest Service was hashing out some of the thorniest access issues. “I was all excited,” he says, “then, boom, it just got shut down.”
Discouraged by a lack of transparency and concerned about Forest Service plans to reroute trails, he formed a group, Friends of the Crazy Mountains, to advocate for maintenance of and access to the trails that circumvent the Crazies and jut into their heart like spokes of a wheel.
Wilson said Friends of the Crazy Mountains, which is now “32 strong [with] 570 followers,” linked up with Kathryn QannaYahu Kern of Helena, whose group, Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife and Habitat, is well-versed in access issues. (QannaYahu Kern has advocated for public access to landlocked sections of BLM land in central Montana that was fenced off by the Wilks brothers, oil executives with a combined net worth exceeding $2 billion who are among the state’s largest private landowners.)
QannaYahu Kern started investigating the landscape. She was not impressed with what she found: locked gates, “No Trespassing” signs, Forest Service signs illegally removed, trail markers plucked off of trees, and brush piles erected in the middle of trails designed to force hikers to trespass by stepping off the route. On one outing she contemplated the possibility that she’d drive through a gate and hike a trail only to find the gate locked behind her without cell service to call for help. It spooked her. It also motivated her.
A string of requests for public records followed. An enthusiastic legal and policy researcher, QannaYahu Kern amassed hundreds, maybe thousands, of pages to uncover the area’s ownership history and understand the Forest Service’s motivation for abandoning its previous efforts to maintain public access. QannaYahu Kern says that while the Forest Service had previously fought locked gates, maintained contested trails and reposted its signage, the direction from agency leadership took a meeker turn, shifting to negotiations with landowners in place of on-the-ground action to maintain public access.
She has a theory about that shift, and it sounds something like this: In 2017, with Donald Trump in the White House and Sonny Perdue heading up the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, politically powerful landowners in the Crazy Mountains found a receptive audience for their concerns related to access issues on the Forest Service roads and trails. QannaYahu Kern says Montana’s U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Texas Rep. Pete Sessions pressured the Forest Service, and that pressure was passed down the chain of command until it reached Sienkiewicz, who was suddenly reassigned to a position in Bozeman. The resulting public outcry was enough to reinstate him, but he’s no longer working on access issues in the Crazies, according to QannaYahu Kern. Daines did not respond to Montana Free Press’ request for comment.
Custer Gallatin Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson, who’s spent the better part of her professional career with the Forest Service, said the issues creating tension on the forest are old conflicts complicated by a mix of easements across the private sections. Some trails, she says, have recorded easements, while others might have recorded easements over just parts of the trail, and still others have documented historical use, but no documented easement. The approach to resolving access conflicts she describes has a pragmatic bent: Try to obtain written easements where you’re likely to get traction with private landowners, and de-prioritize areas where you can expect a messy, protracted fight.
And there are plenty of trails and roads that have inspired fights. In the 1940s, a landowner on the east side clashed with the Forest Service about access to Big Timber Canyon (the Forest Service ultimately won), and a dispute with landowners over the Porcupine Lowline Trail goes back to at least 2007. It was rolled into a lawsuit brought by private landowners following the Forest Service’s issuance of its 2006 Travel Plan. The landowners wanted the Forest Service to remove disputed trails from its maps, but the court sided with the Forest Service.
The reassignment of Sienkiewicz — who was active in maintaining public access on Forest Service trails in his district — and the 2016 trespassing citation for a Bozeman resident who’d been hunting along the East Trunk Trail lit a match on the long-simmering dispute. Articles with headlines like “This Land is No Longer Your Land,” “The Fight for Public Land in Montana’s Crazy Mountains” and “Locked Out” began populating local and national media including Bloomberg Businessweek, Outside, the Billings Gazette, Montana Quarterly and the Missoula Independent.
With heat continuing to build, the Forest Service decided to reroute some of the most disputed trails, including the Porcupine Lowline Trail, which passes through parts or all of six square-mile sections of private property. The trail’s passage through private property has been gated for several years. The Forest Service approached the landowners: If they would agree to provide a written easement for a small section of trail, the Forest Service would build a new trail located almost entirely on Forest Service land and surrender any existing contested easements on private land. Landowners Ned Zimmerman and Henry Guth said they were inclined to agree. Wilson and Kern and the groups they represent were not so inclined — they decided their best path was a lawsuit. Helena-based Western Environmental Law Center agreed to represent them.
In February 2019, WELC filed a notice of intent to sue Custer Gallatin Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson on behalf of Friends of the Crazy Mountains, Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife and Habitat, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and Skyline Sportsmen’s Association. The notice references obstructions and access issues on five trails — Lowline Porcupine Trail (No. 267), Elk Creek Trail (No. 195), Sweetgrass Trail (No. 122), Swamp Lake Trail (No. 43) and East Trunk Trail (now No. 136, formerly No. 115) — and describes a situation that “has only intensified and escalated” in recent years.
“This obstruction is having a chilling effect on members of the Coalition, the public at large, and its confidence in using public trails in the Crazy Mountains. Some members of the Coalition are concerned for their safety. Others are simply unwilling to deal with the hassle and intimidation from landowners or risk the confrontation and consequences (including a potential trespass citation) that comes with bypassing or climbing an illegal fence or ignoring a ‘no trespass’ sign in order to access public trails in the Crazy Mountains,” the notice read.
In addition to asking the court to stop the Forest Service from conceding easements and defend public access to trails, the plaintiffs asked that the court order the Forest Service to abandon the trail rerouting proposal. That July, Billings U.S. District Court Judge Susan Watters issued an order denying that request, and the rerouting of the trail is now nearly complete, Erickson said. Wilson said much of the trail he’d volunteered to maintain has since been obliterated and relocated to higher, steeper land.
Landowners haven’t been blocking access without reason. One landowner involved in a collaborative group seeking to iron out the issues says they’re reluctant to grant access across their land due to concerns about gates left open and cattle getting out, for example. Some argue that it’s hard to have free-range cattle with a free-range public. The potential for wildfire weighs heavily on landowners, too, says Lorents Grosfield, a former Montana senator who owns a 9,000-acre ranch northwest of Big Timber. Like Wilson, Grosfield represents his family’s third generation in the Crazies, and his grandchildren mark it’s fifth.
Grosfield recalls at least one wildfire that came disconcertingly close to his property and says landowners like him are just one abandoned campfire away from another scare. Back in 2007, he’d been running errands in Bozeman when hunters walked away from a campfire that swelled to a 19,000-acre wildfire before firefighters and a snowstorm extinguished it. He said he remembers driving home the night the fire started, watching the flames advance and wondering if his property was feeding them. (It was not. Though other homes did burn in the Chi Chi Fire, Grosfield’s house was about a mile from the fire.)
Grosfield said he knows some people have a hard time accepting that the checkerboard lands under private ownership aren’t accessible the way Forest Service land is. “A lot of people don’t like [that it’s private], but it is,” he said. He said the fact that road ownership isn’t designated on most maps and that even old, unmaintained trails continue to appear on Forest Service maps hasn’t helped the issue.
“They’re basically abandoned now — you can’t even find them,” he said. “They’re grown over with trees and sagebrush and whatever. But they appear on Forest Service maps, so people see them and they say, ‘well that’s a trail you can go on,’ even though there may be a no-trespassing sign and the trail crosses into private land.”
Much of the conversation hangs on the type of easement being discussed. Some trails on the forest have a written, legally established easement, meaning you can go down to the county clerk and recorder’s office and find it on the deed. But many do not.
“Only a portion of the existing roads, and relatively few of the existing trails crossing private lands, are covered by recorded easements,” wrote a Forest Service lands program manager in a declaration submitted for the 2007 lawsuit between landowners and the Forest Service.
But there’s also such a thing as a “prescriptive easement” for paths that can be proven to have had “open, notorious, exclusive, adverse and continuous” use. If that use lapses for five years, the easement goes away, per Montana law. Historical trail use and the existence of unperfected easements — and the Forest Service’s fidelity, or lack thereof, to some of its own policies and plans — comprise much of the argument WELC has made in U.S. District Court.
Arguments in that lawsuit are expected to wrap up this summer — WELC filed a brief April 23 asking the court to decide the case before going to trial — and a decision could come as soon as this fall.
Wilson and QannaYahu Kern are not the only people who’ve been monitoring the lawsuit’s progress. Doyle, too, wants to see resolution on the access disputes. He wants the Crow Indians to have access to Crazy Peak so they can continue the prayer and fasting rituals that go back generations. But he doesn’t think legal challenges are the best path toward securing that access.
“I don’t think that’s going to serve us very well, no matter what kind of outcome we get, because it’s been taken out of our hands,” Doyle says. “It’s in the hands of people who don’t live here and look at the mountains every day. I think the community should be making those decisions.”
Livingston resident and former Montana Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Dan Vermillion said he can appreciate both perspectives as they apply to “one of the more vexing access issues” in Montana.
“I think collaboration on the front end is required, but at some point if collaboration isn’t successful, that’s why there’s courts and litigation,” he says. “[But] once you go into court, you need to be prepared to lose, and if you lose, you lost. You can’t go back to negotiations.”
Wilson and QannaYahu Kern don’t question that the fight is worth it. Perhaps no one else working on the issue has spent as much time poring through ownership records, historical maps, county road data, and Forest Service studies and policies as QannaYahu Kern, who’s gone so far as to find the original deeds issued when the Northern Pacific sold sections of land in the Crazy Mountains to private individuals. One such deed she found conveys ownership “being subject, however, to an easement in the public for any public roads heretofore laid out or established, and now existing over and across any part of the premises.”
QannaYahu Kern says she’s spoken with a Forest Service mapping professional who says about 30% of the U.S. Forest Service’s trail system would be impacted if the prescriptive easements like those at issue in the Crazies are lost. In that light, she says, there’s more at stake than the trail system in the Crazies.
“The Crazy Mountains [are] not an island in the situation, she says. “They are the spearhead of the movement.”