During the COVID-19 pandemic, Montanans have learned to cherish their access to public land more than ever as they’ve turned to the outdoors for escape and solace. So it’s not surprising that the residents of Anaconda are hoping the Montana Land Board will approve a land deal to add new public land right at their doorstep.
With past injuries slowing him down, Anaconda resident Chris Marchion does a lot of walking these days, especially as a way to keep active while being socially distant. Fortunately, the former mining community has installed several walking paths and other improvements with the help of cleanup money from the Atlantic Richfield Company, which bought Anaconda Company assets.
But Marchion is also an avid hunter, so when he learned of an opportunity to add more land to the 9,000-acre Garrity Mountain Wildlife Management Area just west of town, he and the rest of the Anaconda Sportsmen threw in their support. It’s similar to those in Missoula who support adding more open space like Mount Dean Stone to the public lands already secured around the Garden City.
Time is of the essence because the 600-acre property being considered just a mile outside the Anaconda city limits has some flat spots that could easily be subdivided if sold to a developer. That could affect the elk and deer that feed on the property’s slopes in winter and the bighorn sheep roaming there in summer.
The Stumptown Road runs adjacent to the highway along the north side of the property, and 40 acres has already been removed from the section due to existing houses.
“This is an opportunity,” Marchion said. “The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation called me and I said, ‘Hell yeah, we’re interested.’”
At a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission meeting a year ago, the agency proposed the Stumptown addition to the Garrity Mountain WMA and went to work getting public input and finding funding to pay the price of $1,740,600.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation immediately put up money to secure a purchase option after landowner Ray Dvorak, who worked for RMEF, proposed the deal. FWP also brought in money from the Habitat Montana program and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust.
“But the lion’s share comes from NRD,” said FWP Habitat Bureau Chief Rick Northrup. “About $1.4 or $1.5 million comes from the Department of Justice Natural Resource Damage program.”
With the purchase price accounted for, the FWP commission gave its blessing to the Stumptown addition in May. Now, it’s up to the Montana Land Board to approve the deal at its July 22 meeting.
Marchion is quite familiar with the Natural Resources Damage Program, having helped to collect information for the lawsuit that gave the state of Montana several hundred million dollars starting in 1999 to restore lands and recreational opportunity lost due to natural resource extraction. And the NRD money ties the Stumptown addition back to the history of the Anaconda region and yet another reason why people want the land returned to the public.
In the early 1900s, the vast majority of the land around Anaconda was national forest land. The Anaconda Company’s mining operations were going full steam and needed more lumber for the mines. So the company traded all the railroad land it owned to the U.S. Forest Service in exchange for 175,000 acre around Anaconda that it could log.
“That’s important because, over the past 45 years, we’ve been working to get all that back,” Marchion said.
The Anaconda Company went broke in the 1970s and started selling off that land to raise money. The Forest Service used the Land and Water Conservation Fund to buy the first 75,000 acres and about half of that went to FWP to create the Mount Haggin Game Range.
Later, after buying out the Anaconda Company, the Atlantic Richfield Company sold another 40,000 acres extending from Mill Creek to Georgetown Lake – the Butte and Anaconda watershed – to Dennis Washington. He later sold it to Ron Yonke, owner of R-Y Timber, in the 1990s.
After logging the area for about a decade, Yonke offered the land to the Forest Service, but not enough LWCF money was available for the deal. The area might have been lost to the public, except shortly afterward is when the Natural Resources Damage money became available for projects, thanks in part to the late Jim Posewitz.
Marchion worked with the Forest Service to get a little LWCF money and the promise of more. That, in turn, helped the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to commit, which helped to secure the NRD money to buy most of Yonke’s property. They couldn’t afford anything but undeveloped land, which meant no roads could exist. So the 35,000 acres they finally purchased in 2002 left out the Stumptown Addition because of the Stumptown Road, which made it more expensive.
“If (Posewitz) doesn’t do that, there’s no NRD money, there’s no Chris Marchion and no watershed purchase. That’s how close we came to not getting it,” Marchion said. “So this piece of ground that we’re trying to get this time was part of R-Y Timber land.”
Getting the Stumptown Addition to the Garrity Mountain WMA is one more step that will return all the land in the Anaconda Company trade to the people.
Out of 18 public comments on the FWP proposal, only three were opposed to the land deal, including Tim Ravndahl, who has one of the houses on the 40-acre parcel that was carved away. Ravndahl opposes the deal for several reasons, although some have no basis, such as suggesting that the land would be removed from the county tax rolls. It won’t.
Ravndahl also complained that the area would be closed during the winter to protect elk herds – just like the rest of the Garrity Mountain WMA – because he wanted to hunt lions and wolves there. But he wouldn’t be able to hunt there at all if FWP doesn’t buy it and a developer subdivides the area.
Northrup said FWP “looks forward to working with (Ravndahl) to address his concerns directly.”
On May 28, Mike Mueller of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation told the FWP commission that the Stumptown purchase would improve public access to about 2,000 acres of state land.
“The benefits to the public from that historic purchase (of Garrity Mountain) are just impossible to measure,” Mueller said. “This will increase Garrity by 6% and protect open space and the view shed for years to come.”
FWP commissioner Richard Stuker of Chinook praised the Stumptown Addition.
“This is exactly the type of piece that we should be looking at, because it does butt up against other wildlife management areas,” Stuker said.
While this project has overwhelming support from Anaconda sportsmen and residents, some of who are already imagining a fishing access site and campground on the property along Warm Springs Creek, everyone is waiting to see what the Land Board does.
Public land and especially public access is important to Montanans, as numerous polls continue to demonstrate. Both Gov. Steve Bullock and Attorney General Tim Fox understand that, having backed public land efforts in their campaigns for political office. So they’ll likely support the addition.
But the other three Land Board members have at times been less enthusiastic, including state auditor Matt Rosendale, who is campaigning to be Montana’s lone Congressman against Democrat Kathleen Williams of Bozeman, who has also made public lands a priority. So a “No” vote from him on the Stumptown Addition could lose him some Anaconda votes.
FWP commission chair Shane Colton knows there wouldn’t even be a chance of getting the deal if the Natural Resource Damage money wasn’t available.
“We’ve been able to use those funds for their intended purpose of making up for some of the harms that were caused to this great state over time,” Colton said. “So all those policy makers and activists that were able to secure that, all Montanans owe them a debt of thanks.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.