Members of the Crow Tribe are concerned after a Montana-born New York investment banker began helicoptering building materials deep into the Crazy Mountains to construct a cabin on a remote parcel of his private land.
“The development of private inholdings in the high elevations of the sacred Crazy Mountains is something we feared for a long time would happen some day, and that day has come,” said Adrian Bird, Jr., the Crow tribal historic preservation officer, in a press release.
Bird is concerned the landowner, David Leuschen, will eventually pressure the Forest Service to allow a new road to be built to the private parcel on Twin Lakes, creating motorized use into lands the tribe considers sacred.
Born in Butte, Leuschen is the son of Donald Leuschen, who was the president of Montana Power Co. in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A graduate of Dartmouth College, in 2000 David Leuschen founded the private equity firm Riverstone Holdings. According to its website, Riverstone focuses its investments in the “energy and power sectors.”
Leuschen’s Switchback Ranch LLC is a large landowner in the state. Out of the nearly 26,000 acres under Switchback’s name in Montana, the majority is in Carbon County near Roscoe (100 parcels, 13,100 acres), followed by Sweet Grass (13 parcels, 6,600 acres), Park (six parcels, 3,800 acres) and Stillwater (11 parcels, 2,250 acres).
Leuschen also owns a big game outfitting business in Cody, Wyoming. In the Crazy Mountains, Switchback owns 15 parcels, the majority of it along Big Timber Creek, one of the few public routes to access the Custer Gallatin National Forest parcels from the east side of the range. Leuschen’s land includes the section that holds 11,214-foot high Crazy Peak, the highest in the southwest Montana mountain range.
Attempts to contact Leuschen for this story were unsuccessful.
Crazy Peak holds a special place in Crow lore. That’s where Chief Plenty Coups, along with others, went to fast during his vision quest. It was Plenty Coups who foretold the disappearance of bison, the coming of Euro-American settlers. The vision encouraged Plenty Coups to advocate that the tribe befriend the U.S. government.
Members of the Crow Tribe have recently been more vocal about preserving the mountain range’s wild character because of its ties to their ancestors. That has included advocating for wilderness designation in the mountain range as the Forest Service crafts a new management plan for the entire forest.
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“The Crazy Mountains are one of the most sacred places in our homeland,” said Sharon Peregoy, a Montana State legislator and tribal member, in the news release. “For time immemorial, we’ve been going to these mountains to fast, pray and pursue dreams that help us renew and strengthen our lives. We need the Forest Service to recognize and honor what these mountains mean to us and protect them against exploitation so that future generations of Apsaalooke (Crow) can continue to turn to them for ceremonial guidance.”
Marna Daley, a spokeswoman for the Custer Gallatin National Forest, said the agency would consider the Crow tribal members submitted comments on the new forest management plan, but even wilderness designation would have no effect on private property rights within the checkerboard land holdings in the Crazy Mountains.
The tribal members expressed fear that construction within the Crazy Mountains could eventually lead to motorized access. That has been attempted in the past.
The Forest Service was sued in 2000 by two land trusts that wanted to build a road across forest property to reach a mining claim along Speculator Creek in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, off the Boulder River. The trusts claimed the agency was required by law to provide such access.
In 2002 a federal magistrate denied the trusts’ request, noting that federal law only requires “adequate access,” which could include by foot or horseback. The ruling was eventually appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court which in 2004 upheld the two lower courts’ ruling in favor of the Forest Service.
Daley noted that even wilderness designation in the Crazy Mountains on forest lands would not affect what landowners like Lueschen could do with their private property.
“We don’t have input on what occurs on private property,” Daley said.
An old road already exists into the Crazy Mountains alongside Big Timber Creek. Although motorized use is not allowed on the rocky route, it provides the main access for hikers, hunters and horseback riders into the Crazy Mountains as it alternates crossing private and public sections of land. To have the road authorized for motorized use Leuschen would have to apply for a permit from the Forest Service.
Shane Doyle, an educator and Crow tribal member, said in the press release that any road building in the mountains would throw into jeopardy “thousand(s) of years of Crow tradition.
“The forest plan decision that’s being finalized right now couldn’t be more critical for the future of the Crazies and the future of the Apsaalooke Nation,” Doyle said.
The Crazy Mountains have been at the center of public access disputes for several years. Earlier this year the Custer Gallatin National Forest was sued by a coalition of conservation groups over its decision to create a new trail on the west side of the mountains, abandoning what many believe was an easier historical route that crossed private lands. The Forest Service contended the agency had no easement across the private lands while its challengers said the historical access guaranteed a prescriptive easement right, which would require a lawsuit to prove.
Despite the lawsuit, the Forest Service proceeded with the construction of the Porcupine Lowline trail this summer. Daley said the work has been completed but the agency is waiting for the trail bed to harden, after recent rain and snow, before opening it to public use.
The trail, located northeast of Wilsall, required 2.7 miles of new trail to connect the Porcupine Cabin Trailhead to the North Fork Elk Creek Trail No. 195.