HELENA – A conservation and recreation project southwest of Augusta will move forward this summer after the Lewis and Clark County Commission approved more than a million dollars to support it.
Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to put $1.4 million from the county’s open space bond for the Falls Creek Acquisition.
The Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation plans to purchase 442 acres of private land in the Dearborn Canyon area to turn over to the U.S. Forest Service.
Supporters say buying the property will preserve important wildlife habitat, protect water quality in the Upper Dearborn River and Falls Creek, and improve public access – both on the property itself and on 26,000 acres of National Forest land that lie behind it.
“It’s a win for elk and deer and grizzly bears, it’s a win for hunters and hikers and people who enjoy being in the outdoors and watching wildlife,” said RMEF communications director Mark Holyoak. “It’s just a win across the board.”
The property includes about one mile of the Falls Creek Trail leading to a popular waterfall. Transferring it to the Forest Service would secure permanent access.
The Falls Creek property was assessed at $2.46 million. RMEF reached an agreement with landowner Daniel Barrett to purchase the land by the end of 2020, once funding was secured. Together with the Forest Service, they have already secured about $960,000.
Lewis and Clark County voters approved the $10 million Land, Water and Wildlife bond in 2008, to provide money for conservation and recreation projects.
The commission originally considering using $1 million of that money for the Falls Creek Acquisition, but RMEF leaders asked them for additional funding so they could wrap up the purchase by the fall.
“We could walk out of here today with our original request of $1.5 million, and we can start planning a celebration, a dedication, get that property opened up for all the citizens of Lewis and Clark County to get out there and enjoy,” said Mike Mueller, RMEF’s senior lands program manager. “I can’t wait to do that.”
Mueller eventually said $1.4 million would be enough for them to move forward immediately on the project.
Commissioners considered providing $1 million for now, then adding more later if RMEF couldn’t raise the rest of what they needed. But they decided to simply cover the remaining costs and let the project get going.
“If Lewis and Clark County and the taxpayers of Lewis and Clark County are going to step up and partner in one of these, we want to see the rest of the partners do their part,” said Commissioner Andy Hunthausen. “I think raising a million dollars shows to me that they’ve done their part.”
The county will still have more than $4 million remaining from the open space bond after the Falls Creek purchase.
Commissioners called Falls Creek a “legacy” project that can have clear benefits for conservation and for the public for years to come. They said it is one of their best opportunities for investing in an open lands project.
“In my mind and heart, this is why people voted for this in the first place,” said Commissioner Susan Good Geise. “It ticks off every box. It is an absolutely glorious project.”
Leaders say they plan to conclude the Falls Creek purchase in the next few months so they can get the property ready for public access by the start of the fall hunting season.
“We’ll get this thing pushed across the finish line and folks will be able to get out into the landscape and enjoy a beautiful piece of Montana,” said Holyoak.
Jonathon Ambarian reporting for MTN News