Montana’s Public Lands
Montana’s public lands consist of about 28 million acres. Their administration is divided between the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, State Forestry Office, and the Montana Department of Fish and Game.
The acreage in public trust makes Montana the beautiful state it is, for without this protection Montana would take on a different, and perhaps less than unique character.
The most famous of the public lands in Montana are Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. Glacier is entirely within the state, and Yellowstone is shared with Idaho and Wyoming, with Wyoming claiming the lion ‘s share.
Glacier Park is noted for its glacier-sculptured mountains, the Going-To-The-Sun Highway over Logan Pass, and about 50 active glaciers. It is the only place in Montana, and one of the few places in the nation, where a traveler may get a glimpse from his auto of what backpackers and mountaineers see on a regular basis. The Logan Pass, Garden Wall and Many Glacier areas, all reached by road, are excellent examples of what wilderness high country looks like.
Only one road crosses the Glacier Park country. The finest scenery is reserved for foot travel over many hundreds of miles of well maintained trails through very rugged country. Glacier ‘s 1 .600 square miles (one million acres) of land area insures plenty of terrain. These trails are heavily used throughout the summer months and a campsite and use-reservation system, designed to prevent over-use and resource damage, is now in effect.
The best known of the Glacier National Park trails is the magnificent 80-mile north circle route. Other trails traverse equally scenic country. One could hardly go wrong, no matter which path he took.
Except for the lower fringes, and perhaps a couple of main valley areas, Glacier is a forbidding country in winter. Storms are almost constantly raging over the peaks, with avalanches an ever-present danger. High winds may accompany 50-below-zero temperatures. For the adventurer though, a calm sunny day back in the mountains offers an unforgettable experience.
The trail country becomes sealed off by snow as early as mid-September, and some of it isn’t open until mid-July. The road over Logan Pass is usually plowed by June 10, and sometimes earlier.
Yellowstone is a world apart from Glacier. Instead of stark, rugged peaks, Yellowstone presents rolling forested hills, streams, and thermal wonders such as geysers, springs, mud pots, and other indications of heat from deep within the earth. Yellowstone’s 3,500 square miles (2,221,000 acres) encompasses 10,000 hydro-thermal features in all, Not playing second fiddle are 1,200-foot Yellowstone Falls plummeting into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Yellowstone Lake with its 100-mile shoreline. The fishing is spectacular, too. Yellowstone Park offers some of the finest trout fishing in the world.
Montana accommodations for Yellowstone may be found in West Yellowstone. Gardiner, Silver Gate, and Cooke City. Roads go into Yellowstone from many areas and cover most of the park.
Back country travel isn’t as widespread as in Glacier, although Yellowstone offers plenty of opportunities. The northern segment of the park, along the Montana border, offers an excellent trail-travel experience. Yellowstone in winter is becoming quite popular as cross-country skiing grows. Deep snows and gentle terrain in accessible valleys offer high-quality skiing. One of the main winter attractions in the park is the congregation of animals wintering in the valleys. Buffalo] elk, sheep, and goats are to be found in many places.
The road from Gardiner, Montana, to Cooke City is kept open all winter. All other park roads are buried under snow from late October into May. Yellowstone’s roads and trails become snow-free somewhat earlier than do those in Glacier.
Montana ‘s wilderness and primitive areas are a world unto their own. Here the land is in much the same state as it was before man came here. Wilderness status means that the area so designated contains no roads or accommodations and the only method of travel may be by foot or horseback. It offers an entirely different experience from that available in the national parks. The wilderness area gives a person a chance, with the aid of modem backpacking equipment, to meet nature on a one-to-one basis. Montana wilderness ranges from the most rugged country to gentle and easy hiking, with high quality wilderness encounters in all kinds of terrain.
Montana claims a portion of the biggest wilderness area in the country, the Bitterroot Selway. One of the most famous wilderness areas in the United States, the Bob Marshall, straddles the continental divide in western Montana. The most rugged of these wildernesses are probably the Mission Mountains, and the easiest to travel would be the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area near Helena, Montana. Other protected areas range from Montana ‘s highest peaks„ the Beartooths, to the Bob Marshall and its many river valleys and easy to negotiate passes.
The ever-increasing use of back country areas has brought pressure for more areas to be placed into the National Wilderness System. Mountain wilderness regions are considered to be one of the state’s greatest assets. They not only offer the fishing, hunting, and backpacking recreation that Montana is famous for, but they also protect valuable watersheds for our number-one industry: agriculture. In sum, this natural blessing contributes greatly to the economic well-being of Montana.
The heaviest use of Montana ‘s wilderness comes during the summer months, obviously, because these regions are buried under deep snows throughout the winter. In the past few years, however, more and more people are using these areas in wintertime for cross-country skiing and ski mountaineering. The Bob Marshall, the Scapegoat, the Bitterroot-Selway and the Beartooth areas offer relatively easy access. But the winter climate is harsh.
Many parts of the Montana national forests are without roads, or nearly so, but are not in the wilderness system. These areas are being managed as roadless back country. A good portion of national forest land, in well-spaced areas, offers the chance for people to use motorized vehicles to visit forest regions. This affords many people the opportunity to have a wilderness experience. National forest lands, totaling 25,993 square miles are scattered throughout the state, with a few forests in extreme eastern Montana. Most of this acreage is in the line west of Billings through Lewistown and north to Glacier National Park. In northwestern Montana, more land is in national forests than is not. Southwestern Montana contains many of the essentially roadless areas.
The United States Forest Service is trying to strike a compromise between those wishing to have more wilderness and roadless areas and those wishing to use a mechanized means to visit the forest. Most national forest lands offer camping and picnic areas in scenic locations. National forest lands also contribute to one of Montana’s major economic endeavors, the forest industry.
The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for administering a large part of Montana land. Most of the acreage lies east of the line running from Havre to Lewistown to Big Timber. Southwestern Montana, especially in Silver Bow and Beaverhead counties, also contains quite a bit of BLM land. In some instance the BLM administers lands jointly with the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife. The one prominent example of this is the C.M. Russell National Game Range in the Fort Peck Lake area of eastern Montana. A large extent of BLM land in Montana is used by more than 4,000 ranchers to graze their cattle and sheep. Another large segment serves as winter wildlife habitat.
With the exception of the C.M. Russell National Game Range in eastern Montana, most of the recreational use of BLM land takes place in southwest Montana. The Centennial Mountains region, in the vicinity of the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, and the Clark Canyon recreation area, are prime examples of this. The Humbug Spires and the Beartrap Canyon primitive areas are also on BLM land.
The Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife oversees Montana ‘s many wildlife refuges. Aside from the C.M. Russell National Game Range, which they jointly manage with the Bureau of Land Management, they are responsible for refuges such as Lake Bowdoin, Hewitt Lake,
Medicine Lake, Homestead Lake, Lake Mason, and UL Bend, located in eastern Montana; Benton Lake, Pishkun, and Willow Creek, on the east slope of the Rockies, and perhaps the biggest and best known of the wildlife refuges, the Red Rock Lake National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Montana, the home of the whistling swans.
These wildlife refuges serve as resting and breeding grounds for many species of birds and ducks. Other forms of wildlife usually co-inhabit these areas. This is especially true in the C. M. Russell refuge around Fort Peck Lake. Most refuges are seldom visited even though they ate situated in the midst of magnificent scenery. Before visiting, it would be a good idea to check with the Montana Department of Fish and Game in Helena, to determine the best time to see a particular refuge.
South of Billings is unique and beautiful country. The Bighorn Canyon and the Pryor Mountains are the main attractions. The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is administered by the National Parks Service. Most of the Pryor Mountains are located on the Crow Indian Reservation managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A portion of the Pryor Mountains has been set aside as the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. In this area, the Bighorn River has cut deeply into the earth, forming rock walls thousands of feet high — Montana ‘s version of the Grand Canyon. Bighorn Lake is backed up in the area for 71 miles, creating one of the most scenic man-made lakes in the world. This reservoir is used for the generation of power, irrigation, recreation, enhancement of fish and wildlife, and flood control. Fishing, boating, water skiing, and swimming are the recreational highlights of the lake. The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area is relatively new. It was not dedicated until October 31, 1968.
The Pryor Mountains, located just west of Bighorn Canyon, offer a hint of alpine conditions found in mountains farther west. High mountain wildflower meadows, abundant wildlife, and splendid scenic views abound. The area contains numerous caves, among them the Big Ice Cave noted for its large ice formations and crystals. A good gravel road provides access to this part of the Pryor Mountains. It goes to the Dry Head Overlook. From here a jeep trail leads to Mystery Cave and other scenic points within the Pryor Mountains. One of the more spectacular areas of the Pryors is located along Crooked Creek Canyon. Steep canyons and vertical cliffs dominate the view.
Thirty-two thousand acres of the Pryor Mountains have been set aside by the Bureau of Land Management as a wild horse range. Approximately 140 wild mustangs roam free here. The horses may be seen near Sykes or Britton Springs or from Sykes Ridge Road. A paved road going into the area from the east also affords a view of the horses. While in the area, one might visit the ,500,000 acre Crow Indian Reservation, where 4,000 Crow indians live.
Although roads and improved campground facilities have opened up parts of the Bighorn and Pryor mountains, most of the area, and the best scenery, is available only by foot travel or horseback. This part of the state is unique to Montana, worth visiting on that score alone. Further information on the area may be obtained by contacting the National Park Service, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Fort Smith, Montana, 59035.
The State Department of Fish and Game is responsible for overseeing approximately 329 , 900 acres of Montana land, Actually about one-third of this total is land that is leased rather than owned by the state. These areas are made up of lands in game management areas, state monuments, fishing access sites, state parks, recreation areas, and fish hatcheries. The department is making efforts to purchase and set aside as much land as possible, especially for use as fishing access sites. Fishing access sites are necessary where much of the shoreline of Montana’s high quality fishing streams is bordered by private land. All of Montana ‘s rivers and lakes have one or more Fish and Game-administered access sites. Many of these areas are actually lakes such as Dan Lake, Meadow Lake, Park Lake, Browne’s Lake, Whitetail Reservoir, and Blanchard Lake.
Well-known state parks such as Lewis and Clark Caverns, Medicine Rocks State Park, and Makoshika State Park are managed by the State Fish and Game Department.
State monuments include the Madison Buffalo Jump, the Chief Joseph Battle Ground at the Bear’s Paw State Monument, Bannack, and the Missouri Headwater State Monument.
The state recreation areas are scattered around Montana and they include Tiber near Chester , Lake Mary Ronan near Dayton, Clark Canyon near Dillon, Rosebud near Forsyth, Deadman ‘s Basin near Harlowton, Canyon Ferry near Helena, Hell Creek near Jordan, Woodsbay near Kalispell, James Kipp near Lewistown, Big Arm, Elmo, Finley Point and Yellow-Bay on Flathead Lake, and Whitefish recreation area near Whitefish. In these areas hiking, fishing, boating, camping and sightseeing are available. In all they offer a perfect blend of mountain scenery, lakes, and the beautiful prairie.
During 1976, Montana was honored with the placement of the Missouri River into the National Wild and Scenic River System. One hundred forty-nine miles of the last free-flowing segment of the Missouri River was so designated. This stretch of wild river runs from Fort Benton on the west to the Fred Robinson Bridge north of Lewistown. The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for administering this area. The Montana Fish and Game Department has established a series of campsites situated at intervals along the Missouri River. These campsites commemorate historical locations and provide rustic camping facilities for river travelers.
Aside from a free-flowing river, the Missouri River area displays magnificent prairie scenery in the forms of buttes, white rocks, and prairie canyon formations. Many species of wildlife also add to the lure of this country. One of the finest ways to see the Missouri River is by canoe, and, for those not owning their own craft, a commercial outfitter operates out of Fort Benton, Montana. A prerequisite for making this journey would be to read the journals of Lewis and Clark. This was one of the main routes they used to explore Montana. All along the river are reminders and relics of the Old West. Ruins of forts and old cabins still exist. At Cow Island one may still observe the trenches dug by the soldiers guarding munitions and other supplies from Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce Indians as they were fleeing the u. S. Army on their way towards Canada.
In all, Montana’s public lands offer so much variety, and so many attractions, that it would be impossible to experience them all in a single lifetime. Prospective visitors should obtain information on all the areas from the various agencies, to determine just what their interests are, and then set out on the trail.