Dozens of people gathered on the Rocky Mountain Front Tuesday to celebrate a new addition to Montana’s public lands.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation held a ceremony to mark the official opening of the Falls Creek property to the public. The foundation purchased the 442-acre property, just off Dearborn Canyon Road southwest of Augusta, and transferred it to the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.
Leaders say the agreement permanently protects important wildlife habitat and provides much improved access to an additional 26,000 acres of public land beyond the property.
“It’s one of those iconic things that I think the Elk Foundation was kind of created to do,” said Blake Henning, RMEF’s chief conservation officer. “It’s conserving land, it’s putting lands into public ownership and it’s improving access to existing public lands.”
The Falls Creek property was previously used for cattle grazing. Former owner Dan Barrett said, when he decided to sell, he wanted a deal that would keep the land open.
“I had a few choices of what to do,” he said. “One was to subdivide it, which I did not want to do. One was to sell it to private ownership. Or, I could try to get it into the government again, to where everyone can have it.”
Barrett contacted Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and they connected him with RMEF.
“They were fantastic to work with,” he said. “You couldn’t ask for better.”
RMEF reached an agreement to purchase the property for about $2.5 million. Lewis and Clark County leaders contributed $1.4 million of that, with funds from the county’s $10 million open space bond. The rest came from a variety of sources, including the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund and donations from businesses, organizations and private individuals.
The agreement was concluded in time for the land to be opened for hunting season.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think we could pull it off this quickly or bring so many folks together,” said Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest supervisor Bill Avey. “That was the result of a lot of folks that worked hard at work worth doing to make this happen.”
The Falls Creek property includes mostly forests and meadows. On the east side, it is bordered by Falls Creek – including a 60-foot waterfall. RMEF says it provides habitat for animals like elk, whitetail deer, bears and mountain lions.
The Falls Creek trailhead will now provide permanent public access for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, horseback riding and other forms of recreation. Avey said, for now, the public will use an existing two-track road for access, but the Forest Service will look at whether to develop new trails in the coming years.
During Tuesday’s ceremony, leaders said this project can serve as an example of how different organizations can work together for the benefit of all.
“Think about what sportsmen and women get to have now: access in over 40 square miles of incredible wildlife habitat,” said U.S. Sen. Steve Daines. “This is just a real gift for the people of Montana, this access to their public lands.”
“Your dedication to conservation and stewardship made this acquisition possible, and your actions today protect our lands, streams, wildlife and access to them for future generations,” said Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney.
Barrett said he’s glad the land will be there for everyone to use.
“I just hope people take care of it like we did,” he said.