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 today. 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 III of a three-part series exploring the past, present and future of Montana’s Crazy Mountains.
The Crazy Mountains tend to be quiet. If your ears are sensitive enough and your eyes are sharp enough, the Crazies might deliver an encounter with a lynx sunning on a rock or a mountain goat navigating a talus field. The isolated range rising out of central Montana grassland is quiet largely because it’s relatively unpeopled and undeveloped. Whereas a steady stream of residents and tourists frequent ranges to the southwest like the Gallatins and the Madisons, the Crazies are far enough from a population center — and sufficiently complicated by a stubborn tangle of access issues — that they’ve largely evaded the destination designation that’s spurred growth and fertilized economic activity in neighboring Gallatin County.
How the Crazy Mountains became ground zero in Montana’s most vexing land-use debate.
That’s largely due to what has — or, more precisely, what hasn’t — happened on the 70-plus square miles of private property scattered inside the boundaries of the Custer Gallatin and Lewis and Clark national forests, remnants of a checkerboard ownership pattern established more than a century ago. Several large landowners run cattle or sheep ranches, maybe an outfitting business for extra income, but the human footprint is pretty small overall.
That’s shaping up to change. The rumored sale of the 18,000-acre Crazy Mountain Ranch in the grassy foothills of the southern Crazies and reports of heliskiing on private inholdings along the range’s rocky spine have many observers wondering if this isolated island mountain range is poised to lose some of the quietly wild character that defines it.