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Partnerships lead to new future for Fort Owen

Posted at 7:32 PM, Jun 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-01 10:19:24-04

STEVENSVILLE — People who've partnered to restore one of the most historic places in Montana get a reminder of not just a legacy, but a little bit of the pioneer conditions too on Wednesday.

Leaders from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Montana State Parks Foundation, and the Friends of Fort Owen gathered at the newly re-worked site north of Stevensville, marking the first phase of changes.

These include a newly paved access road, better parking, and signage. All to improve the visitor experience at the tiny park and be a better neighbor for the surrounding Fort Owen Ranch.

Owner Myla Yahraus, who purchased the ranch three years ago, cooperated in the expansion, acknowledging the park's importance. FWP staff praised her thoughtfulness and inspiration.

"So that it can be managed easily. So that it can be managed so a neighbor can withstand some of the impacts that come with recreation, and some of that tourism and that interest," said FWP Regional Supervisor Randy Arnold. "But for me, that isn't one and done, we've got it solved. It's just the beginning of a new trajectory."

Montana State Parks Foundation executive director Coby Gierke says the changes are a great example of what can happen when partnerships are forged.

"We wanted to preserve what's here and protect these historic assets, the oldest continuously inhabited space in Montana. And we wanted to provide better access," Gierke said. "So we've achieved those things and we really wanted to make a tenable long-term solution for us and the private property owner next door."

The newly-reopened Fort Owen State Park and the surrounding Fort Owen Ranch

Those changes will provide a buffer between the park visitors and ranch operations.

"It feels good to be able to kind of celebrate this place now and actually encourage people to come here," FWP Region 2 Park Manager Loren Flynn told MTN News. "And that's been something we haven't been able to do for a long time, so this feels like a win today."

Still, to come, efforts to restore the remaining adobe walls of the old barracks building, and steps to improve historical displays, telling not only the story of John Owen and the Bitterroot but the contributions of the Salish Tribe and others in that early Montana community. And also researching artifacts taken from the site over the years.

The park opens to the public Thursday.