Railroads & Clearcuts

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The Modern Legacy of the Railroad Land Grants

The Sinister Costs of Land Swaps

by Phil Knight of the Last Refuge Campaign

The legacy of 19th century railroad land grants continues to wash across the West like ripples of destruction from a bomb. Here on the Gallatin National Forest, land exchanges have consolidated federal holdings, eliminating much of the checkerboard pattern of public/private ownership.

But what has become of those forgotten places traded off in land swaps? Does anyone pay attention when these forests and mountains are pillaged?

Not long ago I witnessed the fate of such places. The sacrifice zone for the Gallatin II Land Exchange was the Bangtail Mountains, east of the Bridger Range, where the western and northern flanks of the mountains were traded off to Big Sky Lumber, who sold the land to RY Lumber of Livingston.

This is (or was) spectacular wildlife habitat, critical range for elk and mule deer. Now the mule deer are being forced into the eastern side of the range, and the range of the Bridger elk herd is being further diminished.

First I drove up into Olsen Creek, where the forest has been thoroughly roaded and sanitized. The big, valuable trees are gone, leaving the remaining forest a sterile stand of even-age trees.

After the forest is stripped of its valuable trees, the trophy homes will come. Huge mansions will bristle from these once-wild ridges, possibly made from the very trees they replace. Sickened by what I saw, I retreated to an area I had not visited before, called Battle Ridge, the northern extension of the Bangtails. Battle Ridge had also been traded off to secure private sections elsewhere. But as far as I knew the west end of Battle Ridge was wild and undeveloped, other than one old road and a few small clearcuts.


Battle Ridge road building in progress.

I bushwacked onto the main ridge and enjoyed the sweeping view of the Great Plains, the Crazy Mountains, and the Absaroka-Beartooth country, gleaming with the season's first snowfall. But as I proceeded I began to hear harsh machinery sounds coming from somewhere in the mountains nearby.

I reached what might the most beautiful, remote portion of the ridge, when the noise became a nasty pounding, roaring, scraping sound, interspersed with the unmistakable sound of a chainsaw. My heart racing, I walked to the north edge of the ridge. I knew what was going on - a new road was going into roadless country. The sounds - harsh, metallic, far louder than any natural sound - were shocking, and totally out of place here. I smelled ripped, torn earth. I crept down through the woods and watched as a huge backhoe tore the forest apart, tree by tree. A bulldozer waited to finish the evil job. Soon this corner of Battle Ridge will be thoroughly worked over, one more forgotten corner of the mountains, sacrificed to progress, expediency and people's careers.


Old clearcuts can be seen on the ridge; the road has now been built
through the remaining forest you see left of the the ridge.

RY Lumber is, right now, trashing another former piece of roadless public forest on Battle Ridge. It now "belongs" to RY Lumber and is merely another commodity to process and sell. Does the land know it is private? The trees? The wild critters that live here? I saw bear scat on the ridge and hawks gliding on the thermals. How will they deal with the ruination of their home? Where will they be displaced to this time?

Say a prayer for Battle Ridge today, and think of the battle being waged against the Earth by those who put profit above all else.


Phil Knight is a long-time forest defender with the Native Forest Network, a global collective of forest activists and NGOs who seek to protect undeveloped native forests worldwide. Phil is a founder of the Last Refuge Campaign, fighting to protect roadless public lands from motorized wreckreation and other forms of industrialization. Please visit the Last Refuge Campaign.


Last Refuge Campaign
PO Box 6151
Bozeman, MT 59771-6151
Telephone (406) 586-3885