Custer National Forest

Highlights
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The lands of the Custer National Forest and National Grasslands lie within 20 counties in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. They are scattered from the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park to the southeastern corner of North Dakota. Distances involved are about 240 miles north-to-south and 650 miles east-to-west. Elevations vary from less than 1,000 feet above sea level on the Sheyenne National Grasslands to 12,799 feet at Granite Peak—the highest point in Montana. With this great distance from east to west as well as the elevation differences, it is no surprise that the Custer National Forest contains some very diverse land. Much of the Forest is surrounded by rolling prairie and farmland. Billings, which is the largest metropolitan area in Montana, is only 65 miles from the Beartooth Mountains.

National Grasslands
For those who crave the experience of open prairie, Custer National Forest has three national grassland areas, each with their own distinctive character...

The eastern most District on the Forest is the Sheyenne National Grasslands. This land was formed by the Sheyenne River as it flowed into ancient glacial lake Agassiz. The area is composed of rolling sand dunes vegetated by tall prairie grass and contains the largest known population of greater prairie chickens in North Dakota.

The Grand and Cedar Rivers National Grasslands are located in North and South Dakota and are composed of rolling prairie some badlands and river bottoms.

The Little Missouri National Grasslands are located in western North Dakota and offer both rolling prairie and spectacular badlands scenery. The two units of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park are located within the Grasslands. The Little Missouri National Grasslands also contain the largest free-roaming heard of elk in North Dakota as well as the only bighorn sheep, excellent populations of sharptail grouse, and numerous archeological sites.

Recreation by Ranger District
The Sioux Ranger District is located in the southeast comer of Montana and the northwest corner of South Dakota. The District is composed of eight separate units of Federal land and has often been described as "islands of green in a sea of rolling prairie." This is an appropriate description as the Federal lands are hills or mesas of ponderosa pine rising above rolling grasslands. The area offers excellent antelope, mule deer, white-tail deer and turkey hunting. The area is also rich in archaeological sites, produces some oil and supports a sizable livestock population. One of the largest populations of Merlins (a small falcon) known in North America occurs on the District. There are two classified National Natural Landmarks on the District, the Castles and Capitol Rock. The Castles are a massive limestone uplift that resembles a medieval castle. Capitol Rock is a massive white limestone uplift that resembles the Nation's capitol building.

There are numerous opportunities for dispersed recreation activities such as hiking and riding throughout the District. There are no designated hiking trails but most of the ridges are open and provide spectacular panoramic views. There are five stocked fishing ponds. Three contain crappie and bass; the other two contain rainbow trout.

The Ashland Ranger District is located in south-central Montana. The present Ashland Ranger District was originally known as the Otter Forest Reserve and later became the original Custer National Forest with the Supervisors' Office located in Ashland. The Supervisors' Office was later moved to Miles City and then to Billings. It is the largest contiguous block of Federal ownership in eastern Montana. This District has the largest grazing program of any National Forest Ranger District in the Nation. This area is rich in coal and wildlife. The District is very popular with trophy deer hunters and also a popular turkey hunting area. Some oil and gas activity has occurred but no producing wells have been found to date. The District offers a variety of topography ranging from rolling grasslands to steep rock outcrops. Vegetation varies from prairie to dense stands of ponderosa pine.

The District has developed a two-loop ski touring trail in the Camps Pass area of three kilometers and five kilometers. The trails are signed and parking is plowed on an "as opportunity permits basis" by the State Highway Department.

Whitetail Cabin is available for year-round rental by permit obtainable from the Ranger Station office in Ashland. The cabin will sleep four, has electricity and wood is provided. Water must be brought in by the user. The cabin provides a good location for hunting and cross-country skiing.

Fishing opportunities are few on the District but are increasing as reservoirs are developed and planted. Information on which ones contain fish and are accessible can be obtained from the Ashland Ranger District office.

There are three riding and hiking areas on the District that total about 40,000 acres. The areas are Cook Mountain, King Mountain and Tongue River Breaks. These areas offer quality hunting, outstanding solitude and a good opportunity for nature study. Motorized travel is not permitted and the boundaries are posted. There are no developed trails within the areas at this time. Maps of the areas are available at Forest Service offices in Ashland, Fort Howes, Camp Crook, SD, and at the Billings Supervisors' Office.

West of Ashland and south of Billings is the Pryor Mountains unit of the Beartooth Ranger District. The Pryor Mountains are composed of limestone and sandstone. This uplift of limestone contains numerous caves, archaeological sites and a proposed wilderness area as well as a proposed Research Natural Area. Recreation opportunities include excellent deer and small game hunting, hiking, snowmobiling and all terrain vehicle riding. Sage Creek Campground is the only maintained Forest Service campground in the area.

The Beartooth Mountains portion of the ranger district is located west of the Pryor Mountains. The Beartooth Mountains are composed of massive blocks of Precambrian crystalline rock, including the Stillwater Complex. This complex contains the largest known platinum and chrome deposits and the second largest nickel deposits in the United States. The Beartooth Mountains are a portion of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. The Wilderness offers hiking, horseback riding and mountain climbing. Granite Peak is the highest point in Montana and provides a challenging climb. The Beartooth Ranger District is about 65 miles from Billings Montana, the largest city in Montana. The area is also a popular for deer, elk, and bighorn sheep hunters as well as fishermen.

The Beartooth Highway is classified as a National Forest Scenic Byway and is one of this nation's most beautiful and spectacular drives. It goes up and over the Beartooth Plateau and is adjacent to the southern edge of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area. The highway is a drive you'll always remember and one you should not miss if you are anywhere close by.

Lodge Mountain Ski resort is located on the District. In addition to downhill skiing, there are two ski touring trails that provide about 18 kilometers of cross-country skiing. There are four National Recreation Trails on the District: Wild Bill Lake, Parkside, Basin Lake and Silver Run.

Early History
The present Custer National Forest is composed of lands that have a diverse history. The lands were in 15 Forest Reserves or earlier National Forests plus four National Grasslands areas.

Settlement in the mountain areas saw early trappers and fur traders give way to hardrock miners and timber operations. In the mid-1870's the ranchers started moving into the area and began grazing livestock with few controls on the open range. Few communities developed until after the railroads reached the Montana Territory in 1881. Even then the lands that soon became the present Custer National Forest were not on major rail lines.

In the prairie areas the control of the lands was contested by the Indians for many years. Some early settlement occurred near the many frontier forts but significant settlement came only as the railroads pushed across the northern Great Plains. Starting in 1871 from Fargo, North Dakota, near the Sheyenne District it took 10 years for the rails to reach the Montana Territory line.

The delay was caused by armed resistance from Native Americans. The vicinity of the Grand River District in northwest South Dakota was the last to be settled. The railroad did not reach Lemmon, South Dakota, until 1907. Development of the Little Missoula National Grasslands areas of North Dakota kept pace with the building of the railroad.

Except for the final Indian Reservation lands nearly all of western North Dakota and the northwest corner of South Dakota became public domain land and then passed into private or corporate ownership between 1865 and 1920. The settlers on these lands brought with them the agricultural practices of their homelands and of the eastern and central United States. For many years there was no recognition of the environmental limitations of the semi-arid prairie lands and of the arid badlands in western North Dakota. The intensity of traditional grazing and cropping practices that relied upon a humid climate was beyond what the land could withstand. The accumulated effects of such practices from about 1910 to the early 1930's, combined with a serious drought and insect problems, resulted in these lands becoming part of the "dust bowl."

The land became tax delinquent and under the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937 many hundreds of thousands of acres were purchased by the Federal government. They were administered by various agencies and when finally assigned to the Forest Service in 1953, they were integrated into local private ranching operations by means of Grazing Associations. These lands are the National Grasslands as we know them today.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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