by Gael Bissell
The close of 2021 can be marked by the completion of one of the most important Flathead River To Lake Initiative’s*1 conservation projects, the Bad Rock Canyon Project. In December 2021, Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP) closed on the purchase of 772 contiguous acres of Columbia Falls Aluminum Company’s (CFAC) riparian/wetlands and valley forest along the south bank of the Flathead River, just east of Columbia Falls. This land, acquired decades ago by CFAC to buffer the aluminum plant, is one of the largest remaining intact parcels along the Flathead River and includes backwater sloughs, a spring creek, and acres of relatively undisturbed riparian and conifer forest. The company’s lands had been closed to public use for years until about a decade ago and after the plant closure, CFAC agreed to enroll this parcel (plus other CFAC lands) into Montana’s Block Management Program allowing for youth hunting. This has been a boon for young hunters and a great way for the company to share this incredible property with the public. This significant gesture led to a cascade of events over the last 10 years that finally culminated in the state’s recent acquisition. But none of this would have happened without the persistence and expertise of many individuals and ultimately, the overwhelming outpouring of public support.
The idea for working for a conservation solution for this parcel started more than a decade ago when the CFAC was closed for some time and the community was anxious to find out Glencore’s (CFAC parent company) plans for its future. During a public hearing in Columbia Falls with Glencore, a citizen, Jami Belt, suggested that along with the company’s plans to permanently close the smelter, perhaps this land could be set aside for the community as a park, trail area, and open space to provide long-term recreation and other benefits to the heavily impacted community. At many subsequent public meetings, nearby landowners and Flathead Land Trust’s Land Protection Specialist, Laura Katzman, continued to voice support the idea for long-term conservation of this parcel. In fact, this land was identified as crucial conservation area in the 1980s as part of efforts to find projects to mitigate for habitats impacted by Kerr and Hungry Horse dams. In 2003, collaborators working with the Flathead Lakers identified this as an extremely high conservation priority in their Critical Lands Project.
For next few years, the initial focus was on developing the Gateway to Glacier Trail through the property to allow folks to enjoy the land. The Gateway to Glacier, City of Columbia Falls, and hundreds of community members supported this effort and the parties agreed to a license for the trail, signed in 2018. However, the groups found it would be challenging for Gateway to Glacier to obtain certain grants for building and maintaining the trail as well as to obtain access through other state or private lands with only a temporary licensed use.
Pivotal support for the public’s idea of conserving the land stemmed from CFAC’s representative, Steve Wright who with his years of experience with CFAC and the community and his keen understanding of timing, presented the idea forward to Glencore representatives in 2019 when Glencore began considering a land sale. Glencore saw the merits of the idea and agreed to pursue it further. Steve then reached out to Flathead Land Trust to see if they and their partners could purchase and conserve this outstanding parcel of riparian habitat while also providing a trail and public access at market value. With strong relationships among key players already forged in the community, discussions between Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Glencore/CFAC representatives moved quickly leading to Flathead Land Trust holding an option agreement, and MFWP applying for large grants.
The state soon learned that this project ranked very high nationally for a significant grant from the Forest Legacy Program and another from the Habitat Montana Program. The stumbling block would be the $590,000 of private funds still needed for the project. Flathead Land Trust stepped up to fill that significant private funding need; and, with the help of many partners including the Flathead Lakers, local businesses, and other community members, they met that challenge. To raise this amount of funding locally, the Flathead Land Trust and partners sponsored dozens of tours of the property and an on-line auction fundraising event. Within a year, major grants from the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust ($175,000) and Heart of the Rockies Initiative & Kendeda Fund ($100,000) and other funds from the Cross Charitable Foundation, Headwaters Montana, Cinnabar Foundation, AGL Foundation, Whitefish Community Foundation, Montana Trout Unlimited, Flathead Valley Trout Unlimited, Flathead Wildlife, Vital Ground Foundation, and 250 individuals from the community, they more than met the goal.
MFWP went through its MEPA scoping and draft EA process and received over 336 supportive public comments from 220 individuals including support from Flathead County Commissioners with no one opposing this project. Such overwhelming support is rare and likely would not have happened without the long-term working relationships among the partners, local governments, community members, and the company representatives.
We thank all of the people who helped make this project a reality as well as the many members of Flathead Audubon who have helped document bird and other wildlife species on this property and all who contributed directly to the purchase!
Our board unanimously voted to give $7,500 to the project but by the time we completed our process, Flathead Land Trust had met their fundraising goal. Those funds will go to the next important River to Lake conservation effort.
This incredible project secured permanent public access to the property, including a limited opportunity for hunting and a 3-mile community trail constructed by Gateway to Glacier Trail for use by hikers, bikers, and birdwatchers. It will ensure protection of key habitats for birds, elk, bears, wolverine as well as migratory habitat for bull trout.
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